The twentieth anniversary deluxe re-release of Radiohead’s OK Computer — dubbed OKNOTOK — was dropped on Friday; the greatest album of the nineties, and arguably one of the top ten rock albums of all time. Sadly, it would be their last major statement in that genre. As an ardent admirer of theirs, I was disappointed — to say the least — by their ponderous shift in direction. For a band that was so expert at pushing the parameters of rock, mining fresh melodies and lyrical insights, the decision to go full bore with their bloopy, bleepy somnambulist meanderence – yes I know it’s not a word! – felt almost like a betrayal. They were the most important rock band in the world, so important, in fact, that when they gave up on the genre it essentially died a slow, painful death. Still, you’ve got to admire their commitment. They never returned, preferring to sedate their followers into an uneasy torpor with their sleepy, tuneless meditations, ever more.
The re-release of OK Computer is a bittersweet affair. It’s a reminder of how truly exceptional they once were, as well as how cruelly we were deprived. They took the ball and went home and we all paid the price for their selfishness. They gave us two masterpieces in The Bends and OK Computer, but it should have been more. The newly re-mastered OK Computer gifts us with three previously unreleased tracks: “Lift”, “I Promise”, and “Man of War”. They are all predictably terrific. At their best, Radiohead’s songs felt as if they were exposing something about the human condition that we all understood unconsciously, yet were never able to express. Listening to these unreleased tracks, only makes me mourn for what could have been. The rending romanticism of “I Promise,” paranoid urgency of “Man of War” and soaring majesty of “Lift” exemplify the band’s unique ability to melodize our yearning – piercing the hidden membrane to reveal the undiscovered truth.
And that voice…it could shatter the walls around any heart. I’m not a religious man, but for a short time, Yorke and company…well, they tapped into something bigger than all of us. I remember when I first heard “Paranoid Android,” it was mind-blowing. The anger…the effortless time changes…the mournful summative chorale…and again, those vocals…I thought I was hearing the voice of God through these young men. I was jealous as hell that they were the ones selected…but I was also exalted. OK Computer was a shockingly prescient statement on our collective disconnection, our alienation…our final step into the cold abyss. It’s a breathtaking work of genius that stands the test of time. Songs like “Let Down,” “Karma Police” and of course the aforementioned “Paranoid Android” are an indictment of our baser instincts…and the fundamental unfairness of existence – how we have all become ‘crushed like bugs in the ground.’ It’s a cohesive statement on humanity’s failure to elevate to the next level, to embrace that ‘undiscovered truth’ that lies just below the surface.
I will always resent Radiohead for turning off the highway to go do donuts in the cul-de-sac of oblivion. But on a deeper level, I’m grateful for the beauty they bestowed upon us all. They gave us a glimpse of what might have been rock’s future…perhaps it was too heavy a burden. Hell, maybe we just didn’t deserve it.
OK Computer was a shockingly prescient statement on our collective disconnection, our alienation…our final step into the cold abyss.