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Radiohead - OK Computer CD (album) cover

OK COMPUTER

Radiohead

 

Crossover Prog

4.01 | 695 ratings

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Textbook
4 stars How boring it is to begin every Radiohead review with the obligatory addressing of the "BUT ARE THEY PROG?" question. But who I am to flout tradition?

Well, the answer was a clear no the first two times out. For album number three however, the answer edges a little towards yes. All the same, this is probably their proggiest album, what with the atmosphere of a 90's Pink Floyd in the air. The old line that they were U2 for depressed people began to die as the stadium rock element exited Radiohead's sound.

What? I'm calling OK Computer their proggiest? Have I not heard Kid A and Amnesiac? Yes, I own all Radiohead albums. But I find those albums have more or less nothing to do with Yes, King Crimson, etc. They're experimental rather than progressive. This is the album where with their unusual take on rock, the presence of big concepts and at least one multi-part monster, it looked for a moment like we might have a new prog big-hitter in the making.

Anyway, OK Computer is routinely given five stars and called the greatest album of all-time. As you've already seen I did not give it five stars. To me, good as it is, it could never be five stars. Why? Because it is grossly front-loaded. In the first half we have Airbag, Paranoid Android, Exit Music, Let Down and Karma Police, classics all. In the second half we have... well not much, I'll get to that later as I run down the album.

Airbag is an incredible opening. Yorke's striking lyric with that incredible bass/cello underpinning and mechanical, crushing drum line really arrests the attention. Then towards the end it breaks down, the haunting multi-layered vocals do their stuff and we're into Paranoid Android. The track with the most obvious nod to prog, this multi-part examination of an individual's apparent slide into depression and perhaps insanity is not to be played at parties but is deeply fascinating for those in the right mood. The final part with the choiral vocals that seems to echo The Bends' Street Spirit is incredibly effecting and yet somehow this emotional vulnerability still works well with the rocking, savage guitars.

Subterranean Homesick Alien is pretty but doesn't do much with its runtime. I suppose it's a nice comedown after the first two showstoppers, but doesn't really make much sense as a lead-in to the very dark Exit Music which completely dispels the pleasant dreamy tone established by SHA. Exit Music is one of the more sinister Radiohead songs- the chopped and looped crowd noise behind the second verse I find particularly eerie.

Let Down is wonderful- it's beautiful and calm like SHA, let unlike that song it goes somewhere, layering on the melody and harmony to wonderful effect, almost having you ignore how unhappy the lyric is. Though after that it's straight back to sinister town for the foreboding Karma Police that managed to be a hit single despite it being just about the last thing on the planet an FM DJ would throw on to get people up in the morning. The plodding unrelenting drum, Colin Greenwood's oft overlooked bass work that adds so much atmosphere, a creepy lyric with creepy delivery, a collapse into static and chaos... and then Fitter Happier.

I actually don't hate Fitter Happier. I actually think it's quite important in a way. If you remove it from the album, I think the album loses a lot of its conceptual/experimental bite- here was the band who did Creep and Just including a two minute spoken word piece with wierd electronic effects all over it. It conveys a sense of the band trying to say something important beyond writing nice alternative rock and also shows the balls/courage the band would continue to show on future releases as they put out tracks that on paper looked like career suicide but in practice, worked very well.

And then we're into the second half. I don't know why Electioneering is so hated. It doesn't have the atmosphere and aura of the tracks I described above but as an ass-kicking rocker on an album that is about to start dragging its heels, the energy and bite are welcome.

And here comes the heel dragging. Climbing Up The Walls does a great job of creating atmosphere but there's just something unpleasant and dull and needlessly slow about it, ending up as something I'm tempted to skip.

No Surprises is the other hit single and while I used to love this song, it hasn't stood up to repeat listening so well because it has a lot less to discover in it- it's a simple song. There's no crime in being simple but after the first half of the album had my mind scrambling around to figure out what might happen next, No Surprises nursery rhyme riff didn't really compare.

Lucky is pretty bad in my opininon. It's just sort of there. I can hear a good song in there, especially when O'Brien performs the sweet solo version of the chorus but something went wrong and it ends up leaden. The Tourist also doesn't do much- the chorus is great but the quiet, folky verses seem silly coming from Radiohead. Another one that didn't need to be as long as it is either.

Quite a good album but when the second half has me looking at my watch so often, I start to wonder if it should even be four stars. In the end I decide it should because the second half is not rubbish, it's just unevenly matched.

OK Computer was at the time, the future of rock music, even though it didn't turn out to be. I and many others assumed that Radiohead's next album would be a collection of Paranoid Android type tracks writ large- no one predicted that for their next two albums, they would more or less abandon rock and to some extent, even playing like a band at all. So even though they never actually went there, it was a signpost to a strange and experimental land of rock and roll that other acts were awed and inspired by and for that it is quite important.

Textbook | 4/5 |

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