OK Computer at 20

<i>OK Computer</i> at 20

‘We hope that you choke.’ On the reverse side of my CD of OK Computer, just below the track listing, you can find these words in small, red type. It summarises the album pretty well. 20 years old this week, Radiohead’s third album is now celebrated by critics as one of the greatest in the history of rock – and it’s worth revisiting why.

Over the course of 53 minutes, OK Computer paints a picture of complete and total alienation – from society, from relationships, from life itself. Yorke’s singing style – often indistinct and mumbling – is dramatically different from Radiohead’s previous effort The Bends, creating a sense that the lead singer himself is being excluded from the album’s texture.

And the album’s texture is often oppressively thick. Although OK Computer was nominally self-produced by Radiohead, this owes a huge debt to recording engineer Nigel Godrich, now one of the world’s most sought-after music producers. Numerous echoes and other effects are layered on top of one another to create a musical soup that at times feels almost impenetrable.

My favourite track has always been ‘Let Down’. The song begins immediately after what it is arguably the most crushing point of the album. The hopes and dreams of the lovers depicted in ‘Exit Music’ have been destroyed in catastrophic fashion, and Yorke closes the track by singing purely, almost psychopathically, those words on the reverse of the album sleeve. Over and over again. ‘We hope that you choke’.

‘Let Down’ begins utterly simply, with a single guitar line: a repeating line that is almost like a lullaby. But more and more lines are progressively added – each line in a different time signature, so that until the drums enter at 00:13 it is almost impossible to feel any kind of a beat. The complexity and intricacy of the arrangement is overwhelming; it is all too easy to become lost in a sea of swirling counterpoint. Yorke, meanwhile, progressively layers more and more vocal harmonies onto the track with each verse, increasing the thickness of the texture but also the vocal pitch at which he is singing. By the time the track reaches four minutes in, the emotional anguish of Yorke has reached breaking point: but here, unlike in ‘Exit Music’, it feels cathartic rather than nihilistic.

Conventional wisdom holds that ‘Fitter Happier’ – perhaps the strangest track on the album, with lyrics read by a synthesised voice from the Macintosh SimpleText application – divides the album in two. I’ve always felt as though OK Computer could equally be heard as existing in a tripartite division: three parts that each carry the listener in a journey from a state of neutrality to an emotional abyss. The abyss is reached three times: at the ends of ‘Exit Music’, ‘Climbing Up The Walls’, and ‘Lucky’.

‘The Tourist’, a gem of simplicity, acts as the perfect album closer. Working at a tempo far less than any other track on the album, it acts as a semi-ironic comment on all the content so far – testament to Radiohead’s underappreciated sense of humour. ‘Slow down,’ Yorke entreats himself. ‘Idiot, slow down.’

Originally published by Cherwell on 26/05/17 (not online).

High Life

<i>High Life</i>

Originally published on The Poor Print on 05/05/17 as part of a series of music articles released on a daily basis to celebrate Oriel Arts Week 2017

For a man who has a lot to say, Brian Eno doesn’t always say that much. High Life, his 2014 collaborative album with Karl Hyde, is relatively verbose; Eno is nowadays best known for his pioneering albums of ambient music, beginning in the 1970s. Yet you’d be hard-pressed to find any of the lyrics to High Life online.

Perhaps the lyrics don’t really matter that much. Eno’s distinctive singing style is vitally important to the album’s aesthetic, almost completely without vibrato, creating a drone-like quality. The singer becomes merely another instrument among many; the sustained melodic lines and mumbled articulation seamlessly blend Eno’s voice into the texture.

The influence of Eno’s experience in ambient music is evident throughout. None of the ‘songs’ utilise structures that can be likened to those of a standard pop song, instead using additive processes that create a static temporal state. ‘Return’ may employ full sentences in the lyrics, but harmonically the song simply oscillates between two chords as the texture continually thickens over a period of nine minutes. ‘Time to Waste It’ is simply built on a one-bar groove, and the lyrics are entirely meaningless (as far as I can tell) – a collage of phrases thrown together by intuition. The method is a speciality of Eno’s.

Yet it would be wrong to say that Eno were at the centre of High Life. ‘Cells and Bells’, the perfect closer, is serene enough to have easily come from an Eno solo album and, despite their incessant pulses, neither ‘Return’ nor ‘Lilac’ is exactly a dance track. But High Life as a whole is far more varied – ‘Time to Waste It’, with its heavily processed Soul samples, feels like a ‘70s groove that’s been cut into tiny pieces and reassembled by a 21st-century robot with no clue what to do. ‘DBF’, meanwhile, is furiously aggressive: a frenetic instrumental track that melds West African influences with 21st-Century electronic music. (The album’s name is almost certainly derived from ‘Highlife’, the name given to a genre of jazz-inflected West African pop music that emerged in the 20th Century.) Karl Hyde’s guitar signature guitar technique is the glue holding the album together, providing a driving rhythmic force and blending the texture throughout.

The standout track of the album is ‘Lilac’. The texture begins simply – just Karl Hyde’s guitar and electronic percussion – but grows; the soup thickens with each iteration as new lines are added to the mix. Especially noticeable are Eno’s vocal harmonies, which are slowly layered onto the track as it progresses. Absent over the central instrumental section (beginning at 4:35), their return at 8:50 feels colossal: a sea of Brian Enos bearing down upon you.

‘Lilac’ is mostly supported by an oscillation of G major and D major chords. The effect is to lull the listener into expecting nothing more, creating an extraordinary lift in mood when a stray C major chord is struck – the simple made radical. Nine and a half minutes are carried by only two lines of text, an aphorism blissfully repeated over and over ad infinitum. ‘The door between us is lilac. Made of something like light. But not.’