Radiohead OK Computer OKNOTOK 1997-2017

by Jon Burke Rating:10 Release Date:2017-06-23

Twenty years on, Radiohead’s OK Computer has just been re-released with rare bonus content under the title, OKNOTOK. If one thing is made clear from the reissue it’s that the legendary album is still as good as its storied reputation. And while most of the fanfare is due to the album’s timeless universality, OK Computer is also very much a record its moment. It perfectly encapsulates both the close of the 1990s and the dawn of a new century. Much of what makes OK Computer so perfect is the way it showcases the band’s range without relying on genre tropes. The digital landscapes of Portishead and DJ Shadow were just as important to creating OK Computer as the wood grain acoustics of The Beatles, or Pink Floyd – critics’ two most frequent musical analogs for the record. While there is a grand orchestral beauty to some songs, there is just as frequently a jittery, over-caffeinated, agitation at play which adds real stakes to the sometimes challenging listening experience. This odd dichotomy separates OK Computer from the entirety of Radiohead’s back catalog while also forming the pad from which Kid A, and everything that followed, was launched. Interestingly, what OKNOTOK proves is how close Radiohead came to making a mere sequel to The Bends as opposed to tackling what was ultimately a complete overhaul of popular music.

Too much has already been written about OK Computer to linger too long on it here. It’s an amazing record by nearly any metric and almost everyone, other than Robert Christgau, regards it as such. Briefly though, a few takeaways from my most recent play through:

The sheer audacity of releasing “Paranoid Android” as the album’s first single is just as stunning now as it was in 1997. Not only is the song over six minutes long, hook-less, lyrically obtuse and sonically schizophrenic, it’s also peerless. Keep in mind that the other 1997 hit songs in the same “Alternative” genre to which Radiohead was so sloppily assigned included: Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping”, Smash Mouth’s “Walkin’ on the Sun” and Third Eye Blind’s “How’s It Going to Be”. Historically speaking, maybe only Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” compares in terms of both sheer commercial and critical success for such an atypical pop music hit.

“Exit Music (For A Film)” was apparently inspired by Franco Zeffirelli’s take on Romeo and Juliet but was placed on the soundtrack for Baz Luhrmann's whiny, gen-x'ers with guns version. For years I disliked the song due to its association with that film. Now, with time and distance, I find the listening experience to be both lovely and elegiac and free from fantasies of face-punching a teenage DiCaprio or wincing at the weird moose-like sound Claire Danes makes when she cries.

While the Hawking-esque “Fitter Happier” was a track I skipped over nearly every time after my initial play through, its influence on the zeitgeist is undeniably palpable. From the empty digital monotone of Agent Smith in The Matrix, to countless episodes of sci-fi television, and now Siri and Alexa, “Fitter Happier” is as dark a piece of speculative fiction as anything by Harlan Ellison

Both “No Surprises” and “Lucky” hold up extremely well. I found myself listening to both several times through, on repeat. “No Surprises” for all the little flourishes and sonic treats embedded under the surface of what, by all rights, ought to be a fairly simplistic song. As for “Lucky,” I’d forgotten how incredibly cinematic and deeply pleasing the song’s explosive second half becomes with headphones and an inappropriately high volume.

In terms of the extras offered by OKNOTOK, there’s little to complain about. Radiohead cobbled together almost an album’s worth of unreleased material for the re-release and all of it is up to the band’s usual standards of sonic perfection and interesting musicality. With that said, it’s clear from these songs that Radiohead stood at a crossroad during the recording of Ok Computer: whether to remain a tight, pleasant pop outfit or instead to take some risks, make some bold choices and experiment with greatness. The result, Ok Computer, has very little in common with its predecessor, The Bends. This isn’t to say The Bends is a bad album, or musically uninteresting, because it is neither of those things. Instead, in hindsight, The Bends comes across as a Pixies-esque attempt to prove Radiohead was more than a one-hit wonder by making an entire album full of appealing pop with the same power as “Creep.” So many of the cut songs on OKNOTOK are a logical extension of The Bends that it becomes clear Ok Computer was an intentional move away from the pop-centric philosophy of the previous record.

OKNOTOK’s second disc of extras opens with the glorious sap of “I Promise” which essentially boils down to a mash-up of “High and Dry” and “Fake Plastic Trees” set to the pace of a protracted march. Thom Yorke’s soaring vocals have never sounded less cynical, or more sincere, than set atop the strings and crunchy acoustic guitars driving this track. For the OK Computer recording sessions, “I Promise” was a step backward in the best sense and reminds listeners that, despite years railing against it, Radiohead must be feeling a little nostalgic to have finally released this.

Furthering the nostalgia, “Man of War” begins with a slow creep of cautiously plucked strings, and reverberating keys, and evolves into what should have been an incredible Bond theme. The song comes to a turbulent conclusion, with hammering piano and grinding guitars, fading into a quietly crooned outro befitting Abbey Road. It’s almost as pop-friendly as fan favorite, “Lift” – probably the closest thing to a direct sequel to “Creep” that Radiohead ever recorded. What’s troublesome about “Lift” though, at least in the studio version, is its lack of muscle. “Creep’s” explosive guitars and drums set over Yorke’s plaintiff wails were the sound of a band invigorated by an epic artistic hunger whereas “Lift” sounds like it was recorded an hour after the band took down a large turkey dinner with all the trimmings. It’s gorgeous but ultimately uninspiring.

A song that is actually inspiring, “Palo Alto”, is also very much Radiohead tapping into the Blur/The Verve vibe of then-current Britpop. One moment “Palo Alto” hums along with a funky, psychedelic groove and the next erupts into a volcanic guitar grind. While it’s unlike The Bends and unlike most of OK Computer, “Palo Alto” ultimately feels reductive and frozen in the uncomfortably redundant punk-meets-psychedelia vibe of late-90s Alt-rock. “Pearly” and “Polyethylene (Parts 1 &2)” ultimately share the same fate as “Palo Alto” with each being too musically spot-on for their moment in time as to feel fresh 20 years later. It’s both a relief and somewhat disquieting to discover that Radiohead’s evolution was not a fait accompli but instead came down to trial, error and some carefully curated song choices.

Ultimately OKNOTOK will be a deeply pleasing listen for Radiohead diehards and those who either stopped listening at The Bends or wish Radiohead had stopped evolving at that point. OK Computer remains a vital and revolutionary album, even two decades later. Very few albums in rock have come close to its brilliance in the interim and a few of those that have were made by Radiohead. If the extra songs amount to anything, it will depend on listeners’ reaction to nostalgia. Much like Joe Strummer trained a generation to question authority, Thom Yorke taught a generation to question nostalgia. Fans prone to nostalgia will probably receive the second disc of OKNOTOK as the equivalent of The Bends pt. II and rejoice. That said, well-trained Yorke acolytes may feel a little uncomfortable with this stroll down memory lane because Radiohead trotting out so many (near) perfect pop tunes feels somewhat… complacent. And if there is anything Radiohead abhors more than nostalgia, it’s complacency.

Overall Rating (2)

5 out of 5 stars