Today presented another challenging listen, with the third album from Radiohead, “OK Computer”. Moving away from their relatively simpler rock sound, this highly regarded record is considered an important transition as they expanded their sound notably into the abstract. My friend Mike recommended that I should also listen to “The Bends”, the record that precedes this one, which I will do, but it was this selection that first surfaced on my list as the #42 rated album on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Radiohead is in the same category as Dylan, Lennon and Springsteen where Rolling Stone is concerned, as they are constantly and repeatedly singled out as one of the greatest bands of all time. I have always struggled to fully understand that assessment, so I knew I couldn’t rush to judgment on this album.
It wasn’t an easy listen at first, not that I expected it to be, and the matter was likely complicated by the fact that the first two songs, “Airbag” and “Paranoid Android” are my two least favorite songs on the album. However, things began to fall into place with the spacy guitar riff that opens “Subterranean Homesick Alien”. This may be my favorite song on the record, and it really is a beautiful, if somewhat complex sound. The next song, “Exit Music (For A Film)”, was precisely that, as it was used for the closing credits in the 1996 version of “Romeo + Juliet”. It is a haunting acoustic track that fits the purpose very well for that tragic story. “Let Down” reminds me a bit of “Fall On Me” by R.E.M. at first, but the sound is all their own. It is another melancholy melody with a really appealing descending riff, and the vocals by Thom Yorke really shine. “Karma Police” is another excellent and powerful song, and my favorite part is the wonderfully abrasive and repetitive guitar grind that closes out the track. This song ending, leading into the bizarre mid-album mood-setter “Fitter Happier”, which is an odd embrace of emerging technology, helps to define the tone of this record. The musical abrasiveness resumes with the seemingly out of place opening for “Electioneering”, which concludes my run of favorites on this record. I don’t necessarily love “Climbing Up the Walls”, but the unusual string ending is another jarring moment on this record. “No Surprises” opens with a Velvet Underground-ish happy riff, which is once again belied by the sad melody that fills in around the framework. “Lucky” was a song they had previously recorded before the rest of the album, and you can tell it helped to shape their expectations on “OK Computer”, and the record concludes with the galactic slow-release that is “The Tourist”. As the song fades to end with just drums and bass, there is a perfectly inserted bell ring that announces the conclusion of this highly unique, but ultimately impressive record.
I know there will be at least one more Radiohead album, courtesy of Rolling Stone, but hopefully it proves to be as eye and ear-opening as this record was for me. If I had to describe this record, it is as if someone took the template designed by Pink Floyd on “Welcome to the Machine” and updated it for the dramatic voice of British new age. Another meaningful new step for me today, and I look forward to further deciphering the mystery of Radiohead down the road.