While nostalgia is a large part of popular culture – reflecting our desire to look back at favorite artists and reminiscence over songs that shaped us – reminiscing almost doesn't feel right with Radiohead. The British band has never stopped looking forward, as last year's atmospheric and politically aware A Moon Shaped Pool made clear. Yet this week, the quintet of Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, Ed O'Brien, Colin Greenwood, and Phil Selway celebrate the 20th anniversary of OK Computer via a remastered reissue loaded with B-sides and unreleased songs. And why not? The album, after all, represented a shift out of alt-rock and into more imaginative, expansive territory. While we're curious to see where the band goes next, this week we pause and commemorate five of our favorite moments from OK Computer.
Today's Radiohead is far removed from the Radiohead of "Karma Police," which remains one of the band's more straightforward arrangements. The song celebrates the beauty of a melody and finds splendor in the sound of despondency. Possessing just the slightest bit of weirdness – a low-humming fuzz fizzes in and out like the on-and-off humming of an air conditioner – "Karma Police" builds around a bleak, romantic piano refrain. Lyrically, the song depicts sketches of people suspicious of one another. "He buzzes like a fridge, he's like a detuned radio," Yorke sings, his voice shaking and quivering throughout. Ultimately, the work hints at the terror of dedicating a life to a company, with Greenwood's repetitive, crestfallen refrain capturing the heartache that can often accompany routine.
"Subterranean Homesick Alien"
The song's name may nod to Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues," but Radiohead crafts something far weirder, trippier, and significantly more inward here. Much of what stands out relates to the otherworldly nature of Greenwood and O'Brien's guitars. Their work emphasizes a Radiohead that was interested in manipulating instruments as much as toying with electronics and experimenting with studio techniques. Or, perhaps more accurately, it showcases a Radiohead that didn't yet obscure its instruments to the point they're beyond recognition. The guitar notes practically bend, evolving as if to mimic the curvature of the earth while Selway's drums, at least during the verses, chase after a languid, hypnotic feel. We hear a brief sonic explosion, with Yorke hollering the word "uptight," but get no real release. It becomes evident Yorke won't get his wish of going to live among the extraterrestrials.
"Exit Music (For a Film)"
Today, we're used to Radiohead going off on tangents or chopping up melodies and verses. Yet this song, written in part for Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, shows how spare and precise Radiohead can be. Largely an acoustic ballad, the song pairs straightforward vocals with a softly strummed guitar. "Today we escape," Yorke sings, as the tune straddles the line between bitterness and naiveté. Radiohead doesn't glorify or memorialize the thematic suicide pact, but the band doesn't condemn it either, opting instead to try and capture the resolute emotional state of its participants. The track becomes more enveloping as it unfolds. A choir arrives in the background, yet the vocals are tweaked, obfuscating a sense of time and place. It all creates a sense of distance: There's tragedy here, but we view it from afar.
"No alarms and no surprises," Yorke repeats throughout. Tonally, the tune comes on as a relaxed chiming melody, but a paranoid mood of discontentment bubbles up in the lyrics. It's unclear, for instance, if Yorke pleads for numbness or compares the daily grind to a comatose state. A glockenspiel and a tambourine lend a sense of toy-like charm. Yorke then seems to break it up with a call for a revolution. "Bring down the government/ They don't speak for us," he sings. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Yorke downplayed the political nature, saying the line was inspired by an exhausting bus ride. No matter. It further illustrates Radiohead's ability to convey anger and alienation with unexpected calm.
Emotional emptiness exists at the core of "Let Down." The same, of course, can be said for much of the album, but this song continues to stand out as it aptly captures the sensation of staring off into space and doing nothing. That is, it should be noted, a compliment, since OK Computer aims to comfort rather than isolate. "Disappointed people clinging onto bottles," Yorke sings as guitars spin around him. Sonically, the song functions the record's outlier. It's dense and warm, with a piano, soft rhythms, and playful digital effects creating a pillow-like effect. For all the dourness, "Let Down" feels optimistic, dreaming of better days to come. "One day I'm gonna grow wings," Yorke sings, finding hope in imagining the impossible.
Photo credit: Steve Keros