The release of this commemorative, ceremonially expanded edition of “OK Computer” for its 20th anniversary gives me an excuse to revisit one of the most uneasily prescient albums in living memory. “OK Computer” is a record (in both senses of the word) of, as Thom Yorke sings on “Let Down”, “Transport, motorways and tramlines”, stage-managed cities and anesthetised suburbs with aliens circling bemusedly overhead: the detritus and whiplash of a rapidly globalising world, both forever anchored in 1997 and more unsettlingly applicable to our current age than ever.
Released at the hysterical peaks of the twin crazes of Britpop and New Labour, and with the nation to bask in the glorifying self-pity of Diana’s death shortly after its release, the album was a promontory of detached sobriety, most clearly expressed in the oft-quoted “Don’t get sentimental, it always ends in drivel” of “Let Down”. But it’s this disdain for mawkishness that jars fascinatingly with the inherently emotional medium of music, providing “OK Computer” with its central intrigue. As Yorke remarked in an interview at the time, there are “certain things you’d never say to your partner because it’s corny. Because it’s been stolen to sell products.” For Radiohead, the intersection of desensitising emotional overload, be it through music, political sloganeering or simply the jostling attention-grabbing of the modern cityscape, and consumer capitalism is undeniable.
Thus, Yorke’s famous claim that the album was about the “fridge buzz” referenced in “Karma Police”—the constant, grinding background noise of modern life—is itself a political statement. As coded as this agenda often is, it is referenced with oblique humour on the soaring “Lucky”, Yorke sighing that “the head of state has called for me by name, but I don’t have time for him”. This lack of time is more than just a vague anti-authoritarian barb, it ties into the greater sense of a world spinning ever faster and ever more unstoppably out of control, with gorgeous closer “The Tourist” (a telling title) despairing “Hey man, slow down”. The lapse into sophomoric hippy terminology reveals the band casting off their over-analytical distain for cliché that Yorke discussed in the interview in a satisfying conclusion of the album’s narrative, even if there is a sense that Radiohead are shouting into the void. No matter how much you want to get off, the ride is not going to stop.
The album’s bonus tracks reveal a few lost gems. Swelling ballad “Lift” was probably left off the album because it served much the same function as “Lucky”, but it’s a strong song that ties into the album’s technophobia theme, and the blustering, piano-led “Man of War” resembles much later track “The Daily Mail”. However, “OK Computer” is a landmark with or without them, and one whose resonance has only deepened with age. An eerie dystopia-lite of endless noise and distraction where “I keep forgetting the smell of the warm summer air”. Sound familiar? CO
Listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aUea0h4DZTs