Thereâ€™s a track on Radio headâ€™s â€œOK Computerâ€ called â€œfitter happier,â€ a checklist of social norms dictated by a machine. Its lyrics and tone are cold and frightening, without rhyme or rhythm: â€œNo chance of escape/Now self-employed/Concerned, but powerless/An empowered and informed member of society; pragmatism, not idealism.â€ I used to wonder how â€œfitter happierâ€ became the seventh track on the album â€“ surely it wouldâ€™ve worked better as an intro? Werenâ€™t we meant to wake up in a dystopia where computers have driven free-thought and individuality to extinction? Not quite. â€œOK Computerâ€ is more concerned with the transition to the computer age, and highlights our struggle to adapt. I think Radiohead made the right choice â€“ â€œOK Computerâ€ is an album that paces itself, and by the time we hear â€œfitter happier,â€ it sounds unexpected and alarming.
Capitol Records was so confused by â€œOK Computerâ€ that they couldnâ€™t even decide what its first single would be. The band settled on â€œParanoid Android,â€ the albumâ€™s towering high point. At over six minutes, â€œParanoid Androidâ€ is a rock epic that sounds frightened, sadistic and remorseful (in that order). Lead singer Thom Yorkeâ€™s vocals are angelic throughout, but their intensity varies according to their surroundings â€“ a voice that dominates a largely acoustic ensemble on one line seems stranded in a maze of electronics on the next.
It helps that the lyrics are sung with the intimate tone they needed â€“ in print form, a lyric like â€œThe panic, the vomit/The panic, the vomit/God loves his children/God loves his children/Yeah!â€ simply doesnâ€™t work.
Likewise, the melody on â€œKarma Policeâ€ is dramatic and graceful, but the lyrics are resentful and vicious â€“ an eerie balance. Instead of a comfortable fadeout, the song climaxes with a subtle transition into digital noise, returning the album to its focus on technology. With its depiction of tyranny (â€œKarma police/Arrest this girlâ€¦We have crashed her partyâ€¦This is what you get when you mess with usâ€) â€œKarma Policeâ€ is â€œOK Computerâ€ at its most Orwellian.
The lyrics to â€œNo Surprisesâ€ reflect on the agony of conformity, made all the more effective by the coaxing but monotonous glockenspiel jingle. The words feel stirring but artificial â€“ the line â€œBring down the government/They donâ€™t, they donâ€™t speak for usâ€ reportedly conjured cheers during recent American performances. Yorke actually wanted to conclude â€œOK Computerâ€ with â€œNo Surprises,â€ but later decided to close with â€œThe Tourist,â€ a gentle finale where the album reconsiders its theme but doesnâ€™t surrender it.
As music becomes more driven by radio airplay, the material on â€œOK Computerâ€ stands as genuine, album-oriented rock. There isnâ€™t a trace of pessimism on â€œAirbag,â€ even as its lyrics celebrate world war and a near-death experience (â€œIâ€™m amazed that I survived/An airbag saved my lifeâ€). â€œExit Music (For a Film)â€ is a touching ballad, but the fate of its lovers is sad and open-ended.
â€œOK Computerâ€ has deeper meaning for Radiohead fans as the bandâ€™s transition into less navigable waters. (Sure, â€œKid Aâ€ debuted at number one on the Billboard 200, but when was the last time you felt like listening to it?)
Thereâ€™s no such thing as a typical Radiohead album. The band re-evaluates itself with one LP after another â€“ the fame they longed for on â€œPablo Honeyâ€ was what made them feel entrapped on â€œThe Bends.â€ Although their more personal material has its own power, â€œOK Computerâ€ is the most universally concerned album theyâ€™ve ever made. Many early reviews hailed its prophecy, and claimed Radiohead was years ahead of its time. I think they were right on the money: Napster, the Internet-music source which many attribute to the decline of the recording industry, was introduced only two years later.
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