Today, I don’t feel like listening critically to a tradition rock or acoustic album. I want to listen to more of the experimental albums that may be on the top 100 lists, and OK Computer seems to fit the bill. Radiohead is known to be a bit left from center. That gets me excited to listen to them, although they are described as alt-rock. Plus, OK Computer is on multiple lists, so it fits the bill for me.
Reading the wikipedia on the album, this album was supposed to take on a different direction than their previous album, The Bends. The Bends was very introspective and the group decided to not repeat the same thing as it would have been very boring for them. Sonically, they recorded in a historic mansion and explored with lots of sounds and effects. A lot of the project was recorded together versus recording in separate rooms with lots of overdubs. It made for a more enjoyable and cohesive sound. Although this album is not a concept album, Radiohead worked hard to make sure there was a sense of continuity in the project.
On we go.
Airbag – Nice opening song. It grooves. The drums are inspired by DJ Shadow. The bass is very dub-like. Thom’s voice is distinct. I catch the mood of the song, especially toward the end. I like the driving guitar melodies. There is a heavy tone to it that also sounds open. Lyrically, it’s somewhat abstract, but Yorke pulls on much of corporate culture – neon signs, world war, German cars, and airbags. He will save the universe in an interstellar burst.
Paranoid Android – Sounds like a pretty bold choice for a radio single! The opening guitar lick is very familiar to me. It feels Beatles-y in the different sections the song contains. I can’t exactly land on Yorke’s lyrics in understanding them right away. His voice and tone really work for his words, though. Looking at the lyrics as a whole under the lens of paranoia, I understand that this could be a person’s (or a king’s) paranoid mind working. The jarring differences in sections can also play into that as well. I have to sit with this one again to take it all in.
Subterranean Homesick Alien – I felt I can catch on to this song. The music is open and inviting. The echos make it feel outer spacey. Lyrically, I catch the story and I dig the idea of a person who wishes for aliens to come down and abduct him because people around him are all uptight. He would learn the secrets of the world, but can’t share them because his friends would shut him out, and he would get uptight about it. Nice switch of ideas. I like the sound selections in the instrumentation. The guitar tones are great especially accompanied by the electric keyboard.
Exit Music (For A Film) – This song is inspired by Romeo & Juliet. I really like the lyrics here. I can understand the character’s perspective, Romes wants to escape and stay in love without getting caught. Juliet wants to hear a song. It feels like there are two characters and the perspective shifts from one voice, to the other, to both their voices in death. I like the progression of the music. There is background noise, a distorted bassline, and even a mellotron (which I wouldn’t have caught without Wikipedia’s notes). The last lines are pretty intense.
Let Down – Feels like a Pet Sounds influence! I say that because of the overall sound of the music and the singing. The lyrics are descriptive of getting let down and somewhat depressed. I can hear the various elements of synths, guitar, and various sound effects that merge in the song. There is a thematic quality about this song. I can totally hear this in movies. There is no groove to this song, it feels like a melodic backdrop for Thom’s voice. It works.
Karma Police – This songs feels more accessible than “Let Down.” I like the lyrics here. He is instructing the Karma Police to take people in, but there is a sense of the karma that he owes himself. Maybe he has gone overboard with the directives? I do like the little musical changes in the track.
Fitter Happier – This is not a song. This is some crazy shit. It’s commercial slogans being read off by a computer voice with sounds effects, piano, and strings providing an intense backdrop. I get a sense of unease with this song, which may be what Radiohead intended. This song makes a very distinct point and critique of society.
Electroneering – This is a most structured song on the album. Apparently the lyrics are inspired by Noam Chomsky as they are a direct critique (and a well done one) of politics. I like the lyrical melody of the hook. This feels like a political rock song! I like the arrangement and the guitar melodies. This felt like it could be a radio single. I like the aggressiveness of the lyrics and the song.
Climbing Up The Walls – Ohhh…I really like this song. It’s dark. It’s about mental health. I love the perspective of the “crazy mind” speaking to people. It’s so descriptive. I catch the whole idea. The music compliments the idea so well. From the brooding bassline, to the thick whining guitar, to the various effects floating around, to Thom’s effects on his voice, the song instantly sets a mood and goes deep within it. I actually love it.
No Surprises – This is a lyrically depressing song. What I do like is Yorke’s ability to really be specific with his imagery and how he can phrase ideas with unique wording. The music is a stark contrast to the words. It feels bright and inviting and has a great guitar riff, apparently inspired by the Beach Boys. The music sounds great, but the message is so somber. Well done.
Lucky – This song was commissioned by Baz Luhrmann for an EP. This song was not only the catalyst of what OK Computer would sounds like, it would dictate the workflow of creating this album. It was inspired by the Bosnian conflict in the 90s. I like the overall feel of the song. Lyrically, the idea of feeling lucky and dying in a plane crash are two conflicting ideas in the song. The production of this song has been compared to Pink Floyd, and I can see why.
The Tourist – I think it’s a great song to end on. The concept of the song is pretty direct…slow down! I think having a title of “The Tourist” is a great concept. The music floats. They keep it spacious, not a lot of strumming guitar, not a lot of extra fluff. The arrangement is nice. I like the overall feel of the hook. There is a buildup post bridge, which is nice. The end slows it down and the whole album ends on a poignant bell.
I thought I was going to hear more synthesizers and electronic production in this album, as that is what I know to be experimental. But I was wrong. I wasn’t expecting this at all. I will definitely have to give it another listen as I couldn’t catch every nuance of the album. But I got a good grasp of Radiohead’s sound and style. I want to hear what The Bends sound like for comparison’s sake.
The mixing of this album was interesting to me. I couldn’t single out sounds in the same way I could with other albums. They really followed Phil’s “Wall Of Sound” here. I felt like each song was a cohesive painting, especially because of Thom’s lyrics. This is part of the reason why I didn’t reference individual instruments too much. And there wasn’t a lot of space in this mix. There is actually a noticable difference between this album and What’s Going On. Also, Thom’s singing voice can feel mumbly at times and he doesn’t enunciate much. I believe this to be a part of his style, but if I didn’t have the lyrics to follow along with, I wouldn’t catch it. Radiohead is not a “pop group” by pop definition sensibilities. I had no idea why this album was considered in the top lists, but I can get an understanding of why it’s considered as such. I didn’t automatically vibe with it, but I want to give it another listen because this wasn’t an album that I can fully catch at first listen. I also know this much, I definitely cannot dance to this album! I wouldn’t call this a mood album. On this album, I think a Radiohead’s strength is that they can capture a mood or a vibe very well and dig into it with no fluff. There are enough layers going on here that require a certain focus, but I think a certain focus is required of all music.
I think part of this album’s success is the drastic difference of the sound of this album relative to what was popular at that time. It came out around the decline of BritPop, and I think the timing on that helped it’s cause.
My big takeaway is Thom’s songwriting abilities. He’s good. I love his ability to create strong imagery and a perspective on each song. I think the combination of that plus the music make this a very solid album and this is what I’d like to work on with my future songs.
I’m excited to see what I come up with. I really wished I learned guitar when I was younger, but I’m learning now!![Edit: 9/29 – I made the track. Enjoy.]