Radiohead OKNOTOK album review: A Reminder that OK Computer is now more relevant than ever
The release of OK Computer in 1997 was a watershed moment for music lovers of the millennial era. 20 years later, Radiohead has reminded us, in a remastered reissue, that its themes are ever-relevant.
Before there was Google, before there was social media and its dizzying chaos of misinformation and ‘alternative facts’, before twerking and other quasi-millenial proclivities, before kids in prams and their parents who don’t give a damn were slaves to 5-inch screens, five clairvoyant men from Abingdon, Oxfordshire calling themselves “Radiohead" came together in the 90s to compose a prophetic album.
And never has a dystopian nightmare sounded more delightful than OK Computer.
Its release on 21 May 1997 was a watershed moment for snobbish music lovers, audiophiles and vinyl junkies of the millennial era.
And on 23 June 2017 before their headline gig at Glastonbury Festival, Radiohead gave its fans 23 new reasons to continue expounding and following the band’s teachings in an aggressively evangelical way.
To commemorate the album's 20th anniversary, the band released the digital version of OK Computer OKNOTOK 1997 2017 (for short OKNOTOK), a remastered reissue of the original 12 tracks plus three unreleased tracks and eight B-sides.
(In addition to the CD and vinyl, a boxed edition will be made available in July that will include artwork, lyrics and Thom Yorke’s notes that is bound to give the Radiohead cult wet dreams and Nirvana)
— Radiohead (@radiohead) May 1, 2017
The band used social media and mysterious posters to create buzz about a potential OK Computer reissue, including a video with a glitchy background and a girl's voice reading alternate lyrics from 'Climbing Up The Walls'.
A clearly enhanced version of the original analogue tapes, the sound is much crisper, the vocals more natural and the themes more relevant than ever.
OK Computer's eclectic array of influences included everything from Miles Davis and Krautrock to Douglas Adams and Noam Chomsky and in between.
The social commentary evident in the album’s futuristic-cautionary vision is as legitimate as George Orwell’s 1984 or Charlie Brooker’s various technological nightmares.
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In a world rife with the epidemic of overconsumption and commodification, Radiohead’s music provided a retreat. To those suffering from feelings of emptiness in an urban metropolis, their discerning lyrics offered hope.
And it continues to do so.
Forever cynical of the political elite, Radiohead saw through the faux-optimistic tone of Tony Blair and the “New Labour” Party when they recorded the album in the lead-up to the 1997 general election and now, their album continues to offer solace to a generation reeling under Brexit and the Theresa May-led Tories.
Radiohead couldn’t have timed the re-issue of their seminal album any better as its dystopian representation veritably reflects our contemporary society in these troubling times.
In its remastered new avatar, the songs bleed into each other seamlessly making the listening experience rewarding as ever.
In what was their third album at the time, Radiohead deliberately moved away from a conventional 90s sound to experiment with more progressive musical techniques and forms in OK Computer.
And they proved that they were no more ingenuous sophomores with their very first song, 'Airbag'. Inspired by Thom Yorke’s survival from a car crash thanks to a mere passive safety restraint, the track is a sort of cautionary tale of technology’s divine authority to giveth and taketh away.
— BBC (@BBC) June 23, 2017
Sandwiched between 'Airbag' and the whimsical 'Subterranean Homesick Alien', lies a condemnation of capitalism and commercialism in the disorienting 'Paranoid Android'. There is calmness between Jonny Greenwood's sonic decadence and there is hope despite the resentment towards the alienating effects of technology.
“Kicking squealing Gucci little piggy” is more than a trendy online catchphrase and the song remains a lasting scrutiny of the human condition despite the panic and the vomit.
'Let Down' is the single biggest cause of Stendhal Syndrome (or colloquially known as art attack) amongst Radiohead fans and makes for a better “bittersweet symphony” than the offering of a certain Wigan-based band.
'Karma Police' is perhaps best described by Pitchfork's Stuart Berman who compares the experience to sitting through a Sean Spicer press conference.
From the manifest political malaise in 'Electioneering' and the unsettling internal conflict in 'Climbing Up The Walls' to the utter futility of the so-called American Dream in 'No Surprises' and a flicker of optimism in 'Lucky', the album concludes perfectly in an epilogue-cum-prologue in 'The Tourist'.
The three new tracks 'I Promise', 'Man Of War', and 'Lift' are timely inclusions to Radiohead's timeless canon of work. But you could see why these relatively upbeat and straightforward tracks did not belong in 1997’s OK Computer.
The acoustic guitar and a marching drum beat in 'I Promise' make for a pretty conventional melody and for a while, you are reminded of a certain Cameron Crowe film where John Cusack holds a boombox over his head, until Thom Yorke's towering lonely falsetto takes over.
'Man of War' sounds like it was written for a Sean Connery movie where two British secret agents team up to stop a mad scientist bent on destroying the world with a weather-changing machine. Funnily enough, it was.
The fabled 'Lift' was shelved in the archives for 20 years due to Radiohead’s fear of commercial success. It’s a sentimental track that again doesn't seem to fit in with their reputation as purveyors of elegiac ballads. Radiohead could have been just another band from the 90s who composed hollow anthems for the empty-minded but by taking the road less travelled by, they have made all the difference.
There’s plenty of good music in the B-sides too to keep the overzealous archivists happy. 'A Reminder' stirs all kinds of feelings based on your emotional susceptibility and ties in with the band’s musical exploration of transportation and urban alienation. The lyrical themes from 'Palo Alto' to 'Pearly' all mirror the content on the A-sides making it the ideal spiritual analgesic for your mental anguish and whetstone to sharpen your grey matter.
The pristine OKNOTOK illuminates OK Computer’s universally pertinent themes and the album is a testament to the true magnitude of Radiohead’s vision 20 years ago. The album perfectly defined the mood from the 90s to the 21st century and will do so for generations to come.
Millennial historians will forever use it as a focal point in the evolution of music.
Music for us will forever be before OKC and after OKC.
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