OK Computer


from the Sydney Morning Herald, June 27, 1997

It may not be time to declare the return of prog rock - that bloated, masturbatory genre which for every King Crimson and the best moments of Pink Floyd gave us fivefold the likes of Emerson Lake and Palmer, and the worst moments of Genesis - but I fear it is not far away. Before it hits, though, let it be known that Radiohead have shown the way to this dodgy future and shown us why prog rock wasn't necessarily bad in concept, just too often awful in execution.

The first single, Paranoid Android, is a three-part, near-seven-minute exploration, which to call sprawling would be to deny the outer and inner logic of its progress. It moves from plucked guitars through slowly escalating (bass-driven) tension to what guitarist Jonny Greenwood calls his "abusive guitars".

As that section crashes we slide into a strange idyll that doesn't settle your mind as much as have you holding your breath for the inevitable release. When it comes, it comes with space-racked guitars bouncing across your cerebellum and you let yourself go.

Not that letting go happens much. The mood here, even more than in the sobering The Bends, is melancholic verging on despair. Thom Yorke's barely contained misanthropy spills out like the spat bile of a camel: sudden, lacerating and lasting. But where others are whiny and grating, Yorke is clear-headed and genuinely anguished. In Subterranean Homesick Alien Yorke describes himself living "in a town where you can't smell a thing", where the people "lock up their spirits, drill holes in themselves and live for their secrets". How many of us take the option described in the hauntingly beautiful No Surprises (where Yorke sounds at the point of no return, of a loss past caring about): "I'll take a quiet life, a handshake, some carbon monoxide, no alarms and no surprises ... silent, silent"?

Even with a lyricist and singer of this conviction, you would imagine that sooner or later you would pull away from OK Computer, worn down by its misery. But musically this is an album of so many pleasures. There's the cushion of The Tourist recalling Pink Floyd circa Meddle or side two of Dark Side of the Moon - with better songs; the elegance of Exit Music (for a film) - which closed Lurhmann's Romeo and Juliet - or the energy of the kinetic Airbag.

At times the guitars swoop and dive, the strings flicker against your eyelids and always some corner seems unexplored, just waiting for you to turn your attention to it. In the grand tradition of the '70s this is an album to listen to on headphones, loudly.

To enter OK Computer is to make a commitment - not just of time but of enough of your brain and spirit as it takes to absorb this man-made, free-standing, self-sustaining environment. For make no mistake, this is a world unlike any you will hear this or any year.

Someone suggested to me that what Radiohead may be doing is creating their own genre. He could be right: prog rock with integrity; guitar rock with brain and soul. Whatever you call it there is no doubt it has reached its apogee here.