In a time when offices were still getting to grips with Windows 95, Radiohead were depicting the lonely, paranoid, depressing digital world we were about to enter. Throw in some deceitful politicians, traffic jams, and alien abduction, as we explore the pessimistic and scary outlook of their 1997 album, OK Computer.
We start with a look at the cover, as the cars drive on concrete highways into the dark scribbles that lie ahead; the cold, icy blues and white; and aeroplane evacuation procedure figures in the corner, panicking. Through the rest of the booklet we see plane crashes, high-rise office blocks, lost children, circuitry and a reminder that ‘you are a target market’.
It is perhaps strange then that we open the album with the uplifting and life-affirming Airbag, and with sleigh bells! The lyrics describe that amazing feeling of rebirth felt after surviving a near-death experience and the sweeping guitar gives it some oomph.
Paranoid Android is apparently a reference to a character in A Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, a depressed android that grows up to hate his creators. The volatile, bipolar song is comprised of several quite different parts, from explosive guitar to beautiful melancholy, and personified well in the delivery of the manic lyrics.
We drift away into space for the next song, Subterranean Homesick Alien. Based on an assignment Thom Yorke wrote as a schoolboy, the lyrics speak of the alienation of modern life. This links really well to an article I read this week, claiming we now live in an Age of Loneliness in which the community of society has fallen away to leave individuals, isolated and alone.
The climax of the record, and surely one of the greatest songs ever, is Exit Music (For A Film). The song was written for the closing credits of Baz Luhrmann’s film, Romeo and Juliet. As I’m sure many of you know, it is a tale of two young lovers who each kills themselves to be together in death, as their feuding families deny them of this in life. A heartfelt solo on an acoustic guitar gently opens the song, as layers of instruments are slowly introduced as the courage builds up to the moment of suicide. Huge drums come crashing down as Yorke lets out a scream: “Now we are one in everlasting peace”. Literature, music, theatre and cinema all coming together to create something truly powerful.
Let Down follows Exit Music perfectly. Uplifting lyrics describe a metamorphosis, growing wings and floating away from the emptiness of modern life, from the repetitiveness of daily routine, from the disappointment. The light keyboard sounds and layering of the vocals make this new life sound wonderfully appealing.
Completing the first half of the record is one of the singles, Karma Police, complete with fantastic video. The piano-led song has a more traditional structure than many of the others on the album. It culminates in the brilliant finale in which Thom realises he was being petty with his ridiculous criticisms, as the song gets lost in backing ah’s before a distorting noise finally extinguishes it.
The interlude, Fitter Happier, is a list of resolutions for an American Beauty-esque depiction of bland, sedated, modern life read in a computerised voice over intermittent, haunting piano and a repeated audio snippet which says “This is the Panic Office, section nine-seventeen may have been hit. Activate the following procedure.” Of all the songs on the record, I find these lyrics the most interesting, full of contradictions and hinting at a history of illness that has been medicated to the point survival no longer seems worthwhile: “A pig in a cage on antibiotics”.
Getting on better with your associate employee contemporaries
No more microwave dinners and saturated fats
Fond but not in love
On Sundays ring road supermarket
An empowered and informed member of society
Tyres that grip in the wet
Perhaps the weakest song on the album, Electioneering at least adds politics to the themes of the album, released in the year Tony Blair’s New Labour were first elected to power. The lyrics highlight the way morality comes second in the hunt for power and takes a dig at the stranglehold the West has on the Third World through its monetary loans.
Things darken somewhat with the chilling Climbing Up The Walls. Unidentifiable echoes shudder all around as Yorke delivers his creepy lyrics of a madness trapped inside your head that you’re unable to escape. The guitars, brass and strings escalate to a frenzy until Yorke lets out a final cry of horror.
The mood lightens with the delightful xylophone of No Surprises, yet the lyrics remain as bleak as ever. There is a peacefulness about the music, reflected in the acceptance of the lyrics to live (or die, it’s not quite clear) in this polluted world, created by those in power, in which the everyday man slowly dies. Anything for a quiet life with no alarms and no surprises.
The grand guitar hook of Lucky reignites the superman feeling of survival we felt in Airbag, “Pull me out of the air crash, pull me out of the lake”.
Final track, The Tourist, is another of the gentle tracks, telling you to stop rushing around trying to do everything and take the time to appreciate the beauty of life before it passes you by.
This really is an amazing album. The songs grow on you over time and your favourite switches with every listen. The themes of the lyrics discuss the scariness of modern life excellently as we enter the digital age. The sequencing, the artwork, the videos, the live performances are all crafted to perfection.