This review originally ran in the August 1997 issue of Worldmusicfests. In honor of the release of Radiohead’s ninth album, A Moon Shaped Pool, we’ve republished this piece here.
Like Beck with “Loser,” Radiohead must have nearly cracked from the stress of launching their career with a hit song as comically in-sync with the antisocial ’90s as “Creep.” And like Beck, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke rose above his self-loathing manifesto to deliver a second album, The Bends, that gradually revealed its diverse, difficult charms. Minus a marketable gimmick, Radiohead secured their audience with an august, abrasive beauty.
If The Bends’s risks were born of pigeonhole fears, OK Computer is a high-wire act without a net. There is no obvious single, the lyrics don’t make immediate sense, most of the tracks are too slow, distorted, or weird for radio, and the whole thing sounds like nothing that sells. Yet this U.K. quintet’s audacious sonic sprawl is the most appealingly odd effort by a name rock band in ages.
OK Computer is a DIY electronica album made with guitars. Unlike their majestic models U2, Radiohead take on techno without switching instruments or employing trendy producers. Although keyboards surface in the mix, most of the sounds are created using guitars, bass, drums — digitally filtered and fucked-up. As with post-rockers Tortoise, Laika, and Seefeel, Radiohead have a fuzz-box or two and obviously know how to use ‘em. But it’s not the gadgetry that makes this album fly, it’s the embattled musicianship, the tightly wound arrangements, the whacked-out but tangible humanity.
With song titles like “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” OK Computer certainly could pass for techno-kitsch. Yet Yorke’s end-of-the-millennium mind-set doesn’t matter as much as the way his choir-boy croon is layered into exalted, aching harmonics. He matches the band’s odd chords and imposing aural textures with a vocal performance that radiates major drama without grandstanding. Most of the time it’s nearly impossible to hear what this tortured dweeb diva (the Anglo answer to Trent Reznor) is going on about. The first single, “Paranoid Android,” piles on tempo changes, messes with dynamics, and withholds a conventional refrain, like “Bohemian Rhapsody” without the operatic bits.
Radiohead make body music that circumvents the head to reach the spirit. The result isn’t political, and it’s only vaguely social. But it feels utterly contemporary, an achievement few mainstream guitar bands can claim. OK Computer bridges the touchy-feely/block-rockin’ divide of ’90s pop with more urgency than a house party of confessional troubadours or breakbeat scientists.