‘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).