Summary of 2/2/10:
This week, The Pennds team broke down Radiohead's magnum opus - OK Computer - its origins, inspirations, transformations and influence. It's a complex album, and in order to really identify how it functions, a contextual and thematic framework is important - it is necessary to examine it against its predecessor, The Bends, and against its contemporaries to access its true influential power.
While we know today that Radiohead is constantly shape-shifting - like a shark that has to constantly move to stay alive - in 1997, the breadth of their transformation could be measured only by the important, yet largely basic, changes made between Pablo Honey and The Bends. These changes, while substantial to the band's evolution, certainly didn't blow anyone's mind - bands tweak their sound all the time. But for a band to apply a generation's worth of experimentation and metamorphosis in the span of 2 years - what Radiohead did with OK Computer - is a rare event. For it to work, even rarer
This transformation took place on multiple levels - musically, of course, and thematically. Instrumentation became more complex - the use of sound as a vehicle for expression was elevated. In order to craft an album so spacious and atmospheric, the band drew from a wider base of musical styles, including jazz and 20th c. classical music. They expanded their collection of instruments. Thom learned piano; Jonny wrote string arrangements (not the "Eleanor Rigby"-esque strings archetypal of pop-rock, but rather soaring, elegant strings); more inventive percussion was incorporated. Important to note is the decreased prominence of vocals. There are long intervals of pure instrumentation, and Thom's singing blends in with the music, itself becoming an instrument; as a result, melodies become as influential on emotions, moods and attitudes as lyrics. The band also took a new approach to recording. For instance, Thom recorded the vocals of "Exit Music" on a marble staircase to achieve that airy timbre. Most of what you hear on the album was recorded on the first take, with the band playing together. This is what gives the album its organic feel. It was created as a whole, rather than pieced together.
OK Computer advanced Radiohead's struggle between convention and innovation. Take for instance the iconic single "Karma Police", a song that splits its time between minimalist piano-pop balladry and soaring, resonant climax, before winding down with what sounds like a distorted ambulance siren. Not your typical rock song. This clash of styles results in a curiously effective method of build-up and let-down, bringing the listener into a chaos of burgeoning noise and emotions so suddenly, yet so imperceptibly that it feels almost comfortable. "Paranoid Android" lives up to its name - like an android, it is a patchwork of so many different styles that the individual segments bear little resemblance to each other, and yet it is one of the most complete and stable songs on the album . Another example of Radiohead's innovation is the simple addition of persistent, but unoppressive, background noise. The deep reverberations that underlie much of OK Computer have a monumental effect on the way each song conjures emotions in the listener. Case in point: "Climbing Up the Walls" - an insectoid droning behind metallic drums and muddled vocals burns with unsettling eeriness, setting a tone of damp insanity, before a tidal wave of strings incinerates it all, a final deranged scream, then smoldering reverb.
These new methods of instrumentation help to expand the album's thematic perspective. No longer introspective, the band themselves have said that OK Computer is about the world around them. According to Thom, he was "just taking Polaroids of things around [him]..." Even the album title reflects this expansion - while The Bends refers to an individual affliction, OK Computer is an ambiguous phrase, with strangely discomforting connotations. It speaks to the concept of our increasing dependence on machinery, a theme that Thom will become obsessed with over the course or Radiohead's work. "OK, computer" as a sheer phrase is powerfully articulate - a beleaguered acquiescence to the dominance that machines have over our lives. And this goes right along with some of the main themes of OK Computer - transport, technology, machine-related disasters and emergencies. The album's other, non-mechanistic themes are morose at best: social disconnection, insanity, paranoia, the systematization of life, and the mental and physical paralysis that these combine to bring about. The songs of OK Computer tell of vast, sweeping emotions. The alienation and fear of OK Computer are far deeper than the agitation of The Bends.
Perhaps the most brilliant method of any on the album is the use of contrast, especially between music and lyrics. While many of the songs seem uplifting, their lyrics are actually quite bleak. A prime example is "No Surprises" - with dreamy xylophones and breezy vocals, you could mistake it for a lullaby, until you hear lyrics like "a heart that's full up like a landfill" and "a handshake of carbon monoxide". Or on "Karma Police", where Thom sings the line "this is what you get when you mess with us" in such a way you might think he was humming to himself. The soft instrumentation and carefree vocals that veil this threat make it that much more menacing. And then there's "Let Down", populated by an utterly despondent metaphor of crushed insects against a background of cheery guitars and riding cymbals. Still, the most striking instance of contrast on OK Computer is on the album's least musical track, "Fitter Happier", the lyrics of which were described by Yorke as a checklist of slogans for the 90's, grammatically unstructured clippings of phrases by which people measure their happiness: "Fitter, happier, more productive" "no longer afraid of the dark" "an empowered and informed member of society". But instead of Thom, these lyrics are read by the speech program that came standard on Mac computers. The rendering of common human goals in a computerized voice indicates all too well the sterilization of human ambition, the automation of life.
But why was all of this so influential? For one thing, nobody saw this coming. What people expected was another album of lean, clever, guitar-centric protests of society's many ills; another installment of the irreverent and sarcastic rock that had taken residency in 1997. Instead, what fans received was an album that addressed ultimate rather than specific feelings that had been left unaddressed by Britpop & grunge predecessor. Nirvana and Blur certainly were not making any metaphors about crushed insects. Nor were they using xylophones for emphasis.