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Friday, August 2, 2013

Album Review of the Week: Radiohead - "OK Computer"

Welcome to the first of many "Album Review of the Week" features on this blog, and man is it a big one. If you've somehow managed to never experience this masterpiece of a record, close this window, go purchase it, listen to it non-stop for a week, then come back and read this review. (Not-so-subtle attempt at increased page views notwithstanding.) For the vast majority of you, you will have listened to and read about this record dozens of times before, so little introduction is needed. Nevertheless, here's a bit of background on the album for those unfamiliar with Radiohead and/or the circumstances surrounding what many consider their finest output to date, 1997's OK Computer.

Radiohead's 1993 debut, Pablo Honey, contained the band's breakthrough hit, "Creep," and remains as one of their most polarizing releases among fans and critics alike due to it's relative musical and lyrical simplicity in comparison to their later works and other relevant albums released in the same year. The group's next album, The Bends, was decidedly weirder and at the same time better, and stands as one of the most original records of the '90's. OK Computer continued down Radiohead's experimental path, and combined unique instrumentation and composition with unforgettable hooks, beautiful melodies, and profound lyrics dealing with the ever-growing presence of technology in our society. This is extremely prescient for 16 years ago in the same way Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's 1984 were in their time period.

OK Computer was the second real indie album I ever owned, after Arcade Fire's The Suburbs, and remains my favorite. Not only that, it marks a turning point in my musical interests. Up until that time, my most-beloved bands were Red Hot Chili Peppers, Foo Fighters, Incubus, and the like, with Arcade Fire being the only 'indie' band I listened to. But at 14 years of age I purchased this fine album for a measly $5 on sale from Amazon (which feels like a crime to me - today I can't even place a value on it), and my life was never the same. I quickly purchased the rest of their catalogue, began reading indie blogs online, and delved into historic records like Is This It, Turn on the Bright Lights, and Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. This album did for me what getting Guitar Hero for christmas had done for me three years earlier; it revolutionized the way I viewed music, how I listened to it, how I analyzed it, and, most importantly, how I enjoyed it. I suppose the story is similar for those of my age group just as bands like The Cure and The Smiths introduced teens of the '90's to the genre.Nevertheless, this album not only holds great nostalgic value to me, but also contains some of the most celebrated music ever put onto disc.

The album opens with the jittery but steadily driving (no pun intended) "Airbag." The track is notable for its constant start-stop bass line, the fidgety and repetitive-yet-not-tiresome drum beat, and guitar soundscapes. After Hail to the Thief's "2+2=5," "Airbag" is my favorite album-opener in Radiohead's catalogue, and it's not hard to see why. At the end of the song, four short electronic beeps set the tempo for the next track, and perhaps the most well-known and beloved from the album, the colossal "Paranoid Android." Accompanied by its equally bizarre music video, "Paranoid Android" showcases Thom Yorke and the gang at their most schizophrenic. Many bands had made attempts at "their own 'Bohemian Rhapsody,'" and still more have tried since. But no song has ever utilized drastic mid-song changes in tempo, tone, and/or emotion like this one does. The first two minutes or so are comparatively tame; a sugary acoustic guitar riff drives the first two verses as Yorke calmly asks "What's that?" Then, the lyrics and guitars take a more sinister turn, as Yorke scowls, "Ambition makes you look pretty ugly." He then turns violent and calls for a metaphorical beheading before Jonny Greenwood unleashes one of the finest guitar solos known to man, which collapses in a wash of feedback and crash cymbals into the song's morose third section. After some moping on Yorke's part, Greenwood comes back for more with one more freakout before the song gives way. The song reached #3 on the charts in the United Kingdom after being released as the album's lead single, an amazing feat for such a bizarre and seemingly commercially-unfriendly song. "Paranoid Android" is an essential track to own for any fan of 90's alternative rock, and its legacy lives on.

"Subterranean Homesick Alien," a floaty, delicate piece of work, comes next. The atmospheric, space-like guitars during the verses really convey the common literal interpretation of "alien," where the lyrics reflect a more figurative take on the title by describing feelings of loneliness and feeling out-of-place. At first, Yorke describes the people around him as "uptight" and wishes to be swept away to a world as he'd "love to see it." "Exit Music" is one my personal favorites from this album, partially because I love songs that build up towards the end, and partially because it perfectly depicts the thoughts and emotions of famous lovebirds Romeo and Juliet in a way even Shakespeare couldn't do. From the start of an innocent teenage romance to the tragic deaths of two lovers, "Exit Music" does just about as good a job at representing an already legendary story as any piece of media can do."Let Down" remains a fan favorite to this day due to its beautifully contrasted guitar work between Greenwood and O'Brien, and is probably to "poppiest" song Radiohead's ever done. And yet, it achieves this commercial appeal with no observable sacrifice of complexity or beauty; the two aforementioned guitar parts mesh well and at the same time don't mesh at all, and Thom's lyrics retain their deep and dispirited themes. And, my God, that high note.The first time I heard Yorke's wail of "you know where you are" coming out of the instrumental break was also the first time a song gave me chills, and very have since. "Let Down" was the track that made me a Radiohead fan for life. It was the moment I knew this band was special, that there was something different and amazing and beautiful that these five English musicians could achieve something that no one else can or will ever be able to.

"Karma Police" is another example of Radiohead's innate ability to balance weirdness with beauty. The track exemplifies everything critics adore about the quintet, what with its creeping rhythm section, haunting vocals, and emotional transparency. Everytime Yorke croons "This is what you'll get," the lyric sounds more and more like an inescapable punishment than a threat. The piano here is gorgeous and propels the song into another realm.All the way down to the feedback-freakout outro, "Karma Police" is more proof the Radiohead does not just write songs, but meticulously and furiously works to get even the smallest of details perfect.

The album's least musical track is in some ways also its most important."Fitter Happier" is a track containing nothing but an eerie piano piece performed under a robotic computer voice calmly yet ominously delivers disturbing phrases much like those used by George Orwell in 1984. While this "song" barely qualifies as a piece of music, it serves several purposes and its presence is essential to the OK Computer experience. First of all, it is the most direct example lyrically of the album's theme; the fear of modern society's dependence on technology and how it dominates our world.The track also plainly splits the album into two halves; the first half representing paranoia towards technology and its growth in society, and the second half showcasing the results of its presence.(That's just my interpretation, though; this record is open to many different translations.)

The moment "Electioneering" kicks off with tambourine clatters and a chaotic riff, you know you're in for a wild ride. Track number eight off OK Computer is arguably its most energetic. The fast paced drum beat, along with Yorke's rugged singing and a unrelenting and surprisingly effective use of cowbell all race ahead to about two-thirds through, where Jonny Greenwood steps in with another blazing guitar solo. The song is also the most unabashedly political track on the album, calling out the way political campaigns are run in a similar way that Rage Against the Machine's music video for "Testify" would two years later. One of the strangest and most frightening songs Radiohead's ever done, "Climbing Up the Walls," provides an uneasy and startlingly accurate view into the mind of an insane person. While the keyboards loom in the dark background and Yorke's internal monologue set the stage, it's Greenwood's implementation of an orchestra that really drives the creepy factor through the roof.Throw in the desperate screams at the song's apex of intensity, and you get one terrifying, brilliant song.

"No Surprises" is similar to "Let Down" in several ways: happy-sounding music with deceptively dark lyrics ("a handshake of carbon monoxide"); similar guitar tones and arrangements; and the sheer beauty shared by both. The final two tracks, "Lucky" and "The Tourist," are equally as beautiful. "Lucky" relates back to the theme of "Airbag" with its hook, "pull me out of the aircrash," and claims one of Greenwood's most impressive guitar riffs.To finish of the record, "The Tourist" elects to utilize space as an element of song. The slow-jazz feel presented by the drums and lack of intensity are a welcome change and well-suited cooldown after the other 48 minutes of the album. Eventually, though, Yorke and company get back to what they do best with a magnificently-built-up-to outro to the record, before closing with something as simple as one hit of a triangle. This simple end to such a complex record is both out of place and fitting; out of the ordinary, yet perfectly executed.

OK Computer is the album that made Radiohead who they are. They're this generation's Pink Floyd as Nirvana was our Beatles. Their music can be and should always be classified as pre-OK Computer and post-OK Computer. Even when you step back and forget about all of the cultural significance of this record, and view merely musically, there is still no denying how incredible this album truly is.

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