The days of whine and poses may be over, but don’t tell that to Radiohead singer Thom Yorke. He has survived the demise of grunge with all of his anxiety and disillusionment intact. Which hardly means that his group’s music hasn’t matured. On the contrary, Radiohead are one of the few guitar-based bands of the mid-’90s that has grown by leaps and bounds. When their first single, “Creep,” leapt out of MTV’s Buzz Bin, in 1993, it came off like a Nirvana wanna-be from hell; the song’s obligatory loud/soft dynamics and Yorke’s self-deprecating lyrics rang empty. But one listen to Radiohead’s third album, OK Computer — a stunning art-rock tour de force — will have you reeling back to their debut, Pablo Honey, for insight into the group’s dramatic evolution.
In retrospect, the seeds of a powerful band were there from the beginning. Pablo Honey was a spotty affair, but Yorke’s soaring, Bono-esque voice and the instrumental prowess of the band pointed to Radiohead’s more ambitious second outing, The Bends. On that record, the music not only complemented Yorke’s pretty voice and pensive lyrics but it built on them, sculpting his expressions of inner conflict (“I need to wash myself again to hide all the dirt and pain .”) into universal meditations on the kind of primal anguish that we all experience from time to time. The songs were stronger — owing more to the Beatles this time than to U2 — and Radiohead had expanded their palette to include heavy doses of psychedelic guitar, electronics and hints of glam rock.
On OK Computer, Radiohead take the ideas they had begun toying with on The Bends into the stratosphere. At a time when they could have played it safe, selling their psychedelic souls for more radio-friendly rock & roll, Radio-head have released a concept album whose theme — based on rock’s age-old fear of the imminence of a world run by computers — unfolds gradually during the course of the album’s 12 songs.
OK Computer is not an easy listen. From guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s menacing riff that introduces the opener, “Airbag,” to Yorke’s fragile pleas to “slow down” on the final track, “The Tourist,” each song takes time to reveal itself as a narrative link to the album’s ultimately spiritual message. In the suite “Paranoid Android,” acoustic and electric instruments float understatedly through the mix as Yorke sings, through clenched teeth, lines like “Ambition makes you look very ugly.” Complex tempo changes, touches of dissonance, ancient choral music and a King Crimson-like melodic structure propel the song to its conclusion, where Yorke sings in a pleading voice, “God loves his children.”
There are moments on “Paranoid Android” when Yorke sounds as though he’s conjuring the spirit of Queen’s Freddie Mercury. On several other tracks, Radiohead also draw from the past for inspiration. Yorke’s throwaway words to “Karma Police” (“This is what you get when you mess with us”) are rescued by the layered, “Strawberry Fields Forever” vibe of the music. “Let Down” is driven by Byrds-like chiming guitars. And the Eno-esque ambience of “Fitter Happier” — based around a computerized voice intoning platitudes like “Comfortable/Not drinking too much/Regular exercise at the gym … /Calm, fitter, healthier and more productive” — gives the song a claustrophobic, Doll’s House feel.
Like R.E.M.’s recent New Adventures in Hi-fi, the music on OK Computer has a surreal, cinematic quality. Also like the R.E.M. record, this album hints at some kind of dark spiritual crossroad. In the delicate “No Surprises,” Yorke announces, “This is my final fit, my final bellyache.” Where Radiohead might go from here is anyone’s guess, but OK Computer is evidence that they are one rock band still willing to look the devil square in the eyes.