The Great Divide of Radiohead's OK ComputerApril 30, 2018
Let’s face it: “Creep” was and is a good song. If you say that you don’t feel awesome when the distortion kicks in for the first time before the chorus, then you’re probably lying to yourself. However, there are plenty of Radiohead “purists” out there who disagree and even reject their entire debut album, Pablo Honey, as part of the Radiohead canon. Still, many Radiohead fans will say that the quality of their music began to decline after the release of The Bends in 1995. This debate surely has a great deal to do with the disconnect created by their landmark 1997 release, OK Computer.
The Bends saw lead-singer Thom Yorke and company looking deep within to find their inspirado, often flirting with outright lyrical depression much as they had with Pablo Honey. While the lyrics often remain morbid on OK Computer, it is not an internalized gloom they are drawing from but rather an external paranoia. “Phew! For a minute there I lost myself,” Yorke croons again and again at the end of the gestapo-ballad, “Karma Police.” The robotic spoken word of “Fitter Happier” satirizes the conventional middle class drone and further emphasizes the theme of a growing disconnect between society, human interaction and emotions.
While the lyrics alone separate OK Computer from its predecessors, it is the music that makes this album a standout in Radiohead’s catalog and perhaps their best work. They had merely hinted at this sort of diversity, creativity and musical range in their previous albums. The songs on this album sound absolutely full to the brim with textures so vivid you can touch them.
Lead-guitarist Jonny Greenwood had never before been able to summon the tones and effects present in such songs as “Subterranean Homesick Alien” and Radiohead’s first true piece of theater, “Paranoid Android.” It pays off. With Greenwood’s guitar sorcery in the spotlight the songs take on a life of their own and make for a listening experience that is unique and exhilarating.
Silence is even utilized masterfully, providing space to breathe on the bare bones finale “The Tourist,” and nearly unbearable tension on “Exit Music (For a Film).” The diversity of moods, which help the album hold up under repeated listens, range from the beautiful disappointment of “Let Down” to the disturbing psychosis of “Climbing up the Walls.”
OK Computer is Radiohead’s early career masterpiece. It was the album that solidified them as critical darlings and ensured them millions of fans throughout the world. While The Bends hinted at a desire to cast aside the conventional post-grunge Brit-pop style, it still clung to it instinctively. The Bends is generally not considered their masterpiece, but it certainly gave them the confidence to make an album like OK Computer. And with the absolute faith of their label and a massive fan base, OK Computer allowed them to make Kid A which allowed them to make whatever the hell they wanted. Yet OK Computer has become a musical Demilitarized Zone among Radiohead fans. Early career fans say that OK Computer is good but led to the “atrocities” of their later career; so-called “purist” Radiohead fans say the album ushered in the the band’s glory years. Either way, OK Computer stands as a bastion for 90s rock music and should be on any list of best albums of the decade.