Why "OK Computer" Is So Great
I bought OK Computer with my cool aunt's Christmas money when I was about 14. I listened to it all the way through – what a way to spend a Christmas afternoon – and announced to my dad that it was my favourite album of all time. He had heard that about a hundred albums before – from Pink Floyd’s to *grits teeth* Red Hot Chili Peppers’ – and smiled a tolerant smile of paternal disbelief.
I feel like OK Computer – along with, say, Infinite Jest – has become the sort of thing a man feels compelled to apologise for liking. It is a “red flag”. It almost certainly makes one a “music bro”. I'm not trying to sound persecuted here. It is, after all, one of the most popular albums of all time. But it creates certain expectations. It bears the scent of beard oil and mainsplaining.
Well, I haven’t read Infinite Jest and I don’t have a beard but OK Computer, which was released a little less than 25 years ago, is one of the greatest albums of all time. In my opinion, it is the greatest. There. I said it. Now to find a woman to explain things to...
Alright, you have probably listened to OK Computer. You probably enjoyed it. But why should you listen to it again?
I suspect that some people assume that the album is more abstract and unmelodic than it is (which, in fairness, at least some of Radiohead’s subsequent work has been). Actually, it proves the extent to which art can be ambitious and experimental. “Paranoid Android” – a six-and-a-half minute song of three distinctive parts with lyrics that shift from anguished neuroticism to violent anger – has no right being as fun as it is. “Exit Music (For A Film)” is just a very powerful love song.
What makes The Bends and OK Computer extra impressive is how bad Pablo Honey was. There’s no getting around it: “Creep” absolutely sucks. The lyrics are insufferable, the melody is dull and people only like that thing Jonny Greenwood does with his guitar because it makes them sound clever when they tell people that he was trying to ruin the song. Well, he didn’t have to ruin it, any more than adding hot sauce would “ruin” a chocolate and brussels sprouts pudding. It was simply bad.
“Creep” is whiny and as much as I am sure some people find Thom Yorke’s vocals grating, OK Computer isn’t whiny. (It is bleak, yes, but it is woe is us more than woe is me.) Nor is it ever dull.
Musically, OK Computer sounds like it could be released tomorrow. The bestselling rock albums of 1997 included Oasis’s boring, bloated Be Here Now, Metallica’s long-forgotten Reload and (I’m not making this up) Creed’s My Own Prison. From the juggernaut of a riff that launches “Airbag” to the chimes of “No Surprises”, the music of OK Computer has the perfect combination of surprise and inevitability. You don’t expect a song to go there but having heard it you can’t imagine the song going anywhere else.
The themes were ahead of their time as well. They were, indeed, more of our times than of the album’s. The movies of the year were Titanic and The Full Monty. Friends was at its peak. It was in 1997 that Tony Blair sauntered into power to a soundtrack of D:Ream’s “Things Can Only Get Better”. Radiohead’s answer, with this album, was you’ve got to be fucking kidding me.
Tech-fuelled paranoia and urban alienation seethe throughout the album. From the Ballardian euphoric perversity of “Airbag” to the passive aggressive unease of “Karma Police” it is all swirling numbers on computer screens and sweat beneath your collar. The quaint bourgeois ideal evoked in “No Surprises” is more powerful for being rendered with charm even as it is being depicted as doomed. “Fitter Happier” dwells on the dark side of the self-help fads that obsessively optimize the means of life while ignoring its ends. It speaks to 2022 in a manner that one simply couldn’t claim that Abbey Road spoke to 1984.
For all that, it a strangely affirmative album. “I am back to save the universe.” “Breathe, keep breathing, don’t lose your nerve.” “It’s going to be a glorious day.” Sure, there is a sarcastic edge to some of Radiohead’s more optimistic lines. But amid such bristling artistic energy, one gets a Camusian spring in one’s step. “True Love Waits”? “Motion Picture Soundtrack”? Those are depressing (if beautiful) songs. OK Computer keeps your nerves on edge but the blood pulsing in your veins.
I was going to say something about how OK Computer is not a perfect album. “Subterranean Homesick Alien” used to be one of the more skippable tracks. Now, though, when I'm listening to it again, I love its mellow, jazzy groove and its soaring peak. “Fitter Happier”? You're dead to me if you don’t love “Fitter Happier”. It might not be a song but it has a great vibe. Okay, “The Tourist” turns into a bit of a dirge. It’s not a perfect album. Nothing’s perfect. Are you happy now?
Above all, OK Computer is such a great album because it is so powerfully, profoundly alive. Hell, I'm listening to it now and I feel unnerved and energised all over again.