Radiohead – OK Computer
-By Kyle J. Rainville
As almost everyone does, I have a story related to this album. If you’d like to skip straight to the album analysis, skip down to the dotted lines, otherwise enjoy!
I used to skulk on music forums early on in high-school fairly regularly. One album that I couldn’t seem to escape seeing was Radiohead’s OK Computer. I decided that I needed to buy it and see if all the hype and attention was warranted. Not long after I made that promise to myself, I received word that my Uncle had died. He didn’t die in a normal way though, he died by falling into a river and drowning. He was drunk that day and he had a history of severe alcoholism and drug addiction. Shortly after his death, I accompanied my family to his old apartment to help clean out his belongings. The man didn’t have anyone close to him other than siblings and nephews. (like me) As we were cleaning out his apartment, I noticed he had a fairly big music collection. I was free to choose what I wanted and take as I see fit. It’s a weird experience taking from someone else’s music collection and adding to your own, it feels like you’re taking something that meant a lot to someone and making it part of yourself.
I listen to albums with the possibility in my head that it may perhaps be a transcendent experience that could not only make you see life differently, but also to encapsulate you into a world that the artist has so meticulously developed and created. OK Computer is one of the albums that has shaped me to think this way. So by this logic, each album is a story or a capsule of force that enriches your life. By taking my late uncle’s albums, they metaphorically gained a new life, a rebirth if you will, by the happenstance of a new owner.
I didn’t receive OK Computer from my Uncle’s collection though. As I headed out with my Mom to run a few errands that same day, I decided that day was the day I’d buy the album. I did just that at one store and when we got back in the car, I put the CD in immediately. Let’s just say that in 9th grade, I wasn’t ready for what this album represented and what it entailed. I distinctly remember putting the album back on the shelf after a few nonsuccessive listens but something kept drawing me back to it. In 10th grade, I returned to it with a determination to see and understand the album because I knew I had to be missing something. Seemingly, it became my sole mission in life to listen to this album. After literally 16 listens, it finally clicked for me that year. I didn’t fully understand it yet, but I felt like I had finally gain the key to the locked door of understanding.
And so that’s how it was for a while, I continuously listened to this album throughout the rest of my high school career. (although not so much my senior year) The album actually inspired me and incited ideas for the topic of my junior theme. Due to this album, I wrote a 15 page thesis on the dehumanization of society through modern technology. It was an ambitious topic for a kid in 11th grade, but I was determined to write a quality paper on this topic. In the same way that OK Computer gave understanding to me, I wanted to give understanding to my teachers and my peers. I guess I must have succeeded because not only did I receive the highest marks for the paper in the class, but I also won a scholarship with it. Mission accomplished?
Maybe…but maybe not. Here I am now in my third year of college and I still find myself returning to this album. Some have called it the Dark Side of the Moon for our generation and others have called it the most important album during the coming of the 21st century. Others yet said it defined and represented the oncoming digital culture filled with personal phones and social networking. I suppose I’ll cut the personal stories out and get into this album and what it represents to me.
The album starts off with the broodingly aggressive and gloomy Airbag. Those screeching and unsettling guitar riffs kick off the trip that is Radiohead’s third album. It’s a song about a near-death experience in a car that Thom Yorke was in. As the vehicle crashed, seemingly dooming the narrator to silence forever, the airbag in the car popped out and saved his life. So just as technology was about to be the death of a man, another piece of technology saved him. This sets up an interesting and important dichotomy that extensively defines the ideas of this album.
I’ve heard Paranoid Android described as the modern “Bohemian Rhapsody” and that description doesn’t even do this song justice. I’ve always viewed the song and its multitude of time signature changes as a concept of disillusionment from society and a jaded view of society’s reliance on material possessions to find contentment and happiness. The progressions and climax of this song root it as one of the greatest songs Radiohead has ever put to tape.
Subterranean Homesick Alien is a small little piece about isolation and cynicism. The singer can’t seem to relate to anyone around him on any significant level. This cynicism leads him to wishes to be swooped up by aliens so he can see the world from the equivalent distance that he feels emotionally detached from it. An unsettling and relate-able piece.
Exit Music (For a Film) is easily one of the most haunting songs Radiohead has recorded. I’ve always viewed it in a particular way. Judging from its placement on the album, I’ve always thought that it had a lot to do with the previous track. Although Yorke felt detached from society, he finally found a girl who was just like him, someone he could relate very closely to. It turns out that love was not the remedy for their problems, in fact they only added to the collective depression. Together, they had come up with a scheme to kill themselves, perhaps from carbon monoxide poisoning in a car. That’s what this song is about to me. This girl remains an important plot point as the album progresses.
Let Down is easily one of the most beautiful and transcendent pieces Radiohead has ever produced. The song seems to take place after a time gap from the suicide attempt in the last song. We can assume the narrator no longer sees this girl (maybe her father found out like Yorke thought) and their suicide attempt was unsuccessful. Another interesting theory is that perhaps Yorke survived and the girl died? If this did happen, Yorke would likely have to flee from wherever he lived by some sort of transportation and the first few lines of this song here support that theory:
Transport, motorways and tramlines,
Starting and then stopping,
Taking off and landing,
The emptiest of feelings,
Disappointed people, clinging on to bottles,
And when it comes it’s so, so, disappointing.
Either way, Let Down has always seemed to me to be about nihilism, depression, and absolute detachment from society. The narrator watches people carry on with their everyday lives and he just doesn’t get it. What’s the point? The narrator thinks that relationships, emotion, and life as we know it is futile because it all fades into nothingness by the end:
Don’t get sentimental, it always ends up drivel
His feelings from this song has led him to some sort of superiority complex when looking at others. This leads to a developed sense of prejudice, arrogance, and condescension in his mind and this is expanded upon in the next song.
Karma Police is rightfully one of Radiohead’s most popular tunes. The haunting piano intro sets the foundation for a song about judging others and finally coming to the realization that you are no better than them. By the ethereal climax of the song, the narrator realizes that this anomaly has been sorted out for his own good, and he feels a renewed sense of self by distancing his prejudice:
Phew, for a minute there
I lost myself, I lost myself
Fitter Happier is one of the most interesting cuts from the album and it’s fairly simple. There’s a computer voice that speaks slogans and capitalist motifs for a happy life; it’s got everything in there from holding down a job, sleeping well, having a wife, driving a nice car, eating healthy, exercising and just generally being productive. This is could easily be looked at as the album’s thematic centerpiece. As the album is about dehumanization and capitalist culture, this song represents someone who tries his best to act according to how the “experts” think you should act to have a good life. Despite his best efforts though, he still feels powerless and empty and he realizes that this way of living does nothing but strip all this is human right form your soul:
Healthier and more productive
A pig in a cage on antibiotics.
Electioneering is probably the most straight-forward song on here as it’s just an energetic rocker on the surface. Beneath the surface though, it’s a critique and jab at politicians and various sociopolitical affairs. This song suggests that politicians are only out for power and their own gain; they don’t care about the society at large. So far on this record, our narrator has become disillusioned and disconnected from religion, love, society, technology, drugs, culture, and now politics as well.
So after all that disconnect, what’s left for our narrator? Enter Climbing Up the Walls, one of the eeriest pieces Radiohead has ever made. Through distortion, reverb, and great production, Radiohead create a song that not only gets in your head but also is about things going wrong in your head. This song is about the suffering and depression associated with someone who has nothing left to lose. This song’s about someone whose mind and views on things are quickly deteriorating and the person losing hope.
How can our narrator possibly find a way out of his precarious situation? The conclusion comes in No Surprises. The glockenspiels that coat the song add a sense of irony to the whole affair. The song is about suicide and this time, carbon monoxide is cited specifically. In my interpretation, this would be Yorke’s second attempt in the album at suicide. Although suicide is a hefty topic, this song presents it as something more tranquil and peaceful. Our narrator has realized that the ‘American Dream’ if you will, is not meant for him. He realizes that all of these things that society says you need to have are nothing more than control tools used by the government and other corporations to keep making money and maintaining control of the population:
A heart that’s full up like a landfill
A job that slowly kills you
Bruises that won’t heal
You look so tired-unhappy
Bring down the government
They don’t, they don’t speak for us
I’ll take a quiet life
A handshake of carbon monoxide
Lucky is one of the slower and more mesmerizing tracks on the album. Thematically, it’s very similar to Airbag and it happens to be about surviving a plane crash. Fittingly enough, I’ve come up with a theory about it. I think this song is linked closely to No Surprises. Bear with me here, if you watch the video for said song, you see Thom Yorke with some type of mask. The mask fills up with water and Thom looks like he’s about to die from suffocation when it empties. I believe the thoughts going on in No Surprises are actually happening inside our narrator’s head while the plane crash described in Lucky happens, take a look at these lyrics:
Kill me Sarah,
Kill me again with love,
It’s gonna be a glorious day
Pull me out of the aircrash,
Pull me out of the lake,
‘Cause I’m your superhero,
We are standing on the edge
From what I can interpret, perhaps Sarah was the girl our narrator was enamored with in Exit Music. She’s likely the one who died in their suicide attempt. From these lyrics one can gather that her death still troubles our narrator immensely and he likely feels responsible for her death. The second set of lines that include “superhero” are likely not the words of our narrator but rather the words of Sarah that are still echoing in his head. Sarah wants our narrator to save her, the bring forth some sort of redemption. Sarah’s death has caused her to be viewed as a sort of “hero” in the narrator’s eyes. Due to the words of Sarah echoing in the narrator’s head, he can’t go through with the suicide that was talked about and planned in No Surprises. He feels like he’s on the edge of a turning point in his life, but he’s not sure what yet. Sarah is with him and together, they’ll find an inevitable conclusion to their collective suffering.
The Tourist marks the end of this album and the completion of our cycle of understanding. Let’s take a look at the lyrics and I’ll try to wrap this up as well as I can:
It barks at no one else but me,
Like it’s seen a ghost.
I guess it’s seen the sparks a-flowin,
No one else would know.
Hey man, slow down, slow down,
Idiot, slow down, slow down.
Sometimes I get overcharged,
That’s when you see sparks.
They ask me where the hell I’m going?
At a 1000 feet per second,
Hey man, slow down, slow down,
Idiot, slow down, slow down.
Sarah’s voice is now an imminent part of the narrator’s brain, almost like a second conscience. The voice of Sarah is guiding him inside of his head, almost like a ghost that’s barking things at him constantly. He’s going crazy, and his driving reflects this. In this song, he’s in his car driving “1000 feet per second”. Let’s look at these two lines:
I guess it’s seen the sparks a-flowin,
No one else would know.
These lines are about Sarah, or at least her conscience that lives inside the narrator. Sarah is the only one who knows what the narrator is going through and she’s seen his problems. (“sparks a-flowin”) The line “No one else would know” implies that Sarah is the only person the narrator has gotten close enough to who would know about his tumultuous inner-tensions. Then we’ve got the final and very important line:
Hey man, slow down, slow down,
Idiot, slow down, slow down.
Now if you haven’t made the connection yet, I’ll tell you, this song is the precedent to the opening track, Airbag. That leads us to a couple different conclusions and I’ll put each one that I’ve thought about out there for you:
1. Those last lines are uttered by Sarah in the narrator’s head, she’s trying to pull him to reason. Soon after, the narrator gets into a car accident and that’s when the airbag saves him. Using some of the lines from that song, you can more fully see the end of the cycle:
In an interstellar burst
I am back to save the universe
In a deep, deep sleep
Of the innocent
I am born again
Remember the lines in Lucky about the superhero? Well, perhaps the near-death experience has given the narrator a renewed appreciation for his life. He realizes that he is a “victim” of society at large. The narrator is a “born-again” appreciator of life, not unlike a “born-again” religious person. Sarah has manifested herself into the narrator’s mind and the narrator realizes what he must do. He needs to “save” society, bring them to the same understanding that he has. He needs to make them see what what he and Sarah have seen. Thus the loop-cycle of the album begins, starting with the schizophrenic heroics of Paranoid Android.
2. Maybe the voice that the narrator heard wasn’t actually Sarah at all. Maybe it was actually the voice of a demon or some inter-dimensional being that imitated Sarah to get the narrator to do what the being wanted. Now what could the being have possibly wanted to gain by imitating Sarah? By manipulating the narrator into near-death experiences, the narrator’s appreciation of life is renewed before the narrator does anything drastic. Maybe the reason that the narrator can’t do anything about his situation is because he himself is being controlled by forces around him. Although we realize that the narrator has disconnected from almost everything, he can’t transcend into anything greater than an average person until he leaves all human things behind. By the end of the album we realize that there was one thing that the narrator couldn’t leave behind, and that was Sarah. Sarah herself is a metaphor for human connection, emotion, and understanding.
3. The third explanation is the most far-fetched in my eyes, but it’s still worth talking about. Maybe our narrator exists in the world but to him, it’s not the world we see, it’s actually his own personal purgatory, or Hell if you will. With this in mind, it makes sense to assume that the suffering of his purgatory will never end, no matter how hard he tries and fights for it to end. Every time he tries to escape, the purgatory manipulates him and prevents his actions. Although the narrator has reached somewhat of a higher level of understanding, he is doomed to stay in the same world as everyone else and watch them die or mundanely carry on doing things that don’t matter. Sarah then is a metaphor and an important plot device for the album. Sarah represents the thing that our society is destroying and degrading; beauty. The beauty that is present in all things that we reach sooner to destroy; emotion, love, connections, sympathy, empathy, the human condition. All of it is being destroyed and our narrator can’t stand to watch it all go.
Conclusion: If you’re still reading this, I thank you for having the patience to read my theories about this record. If it wasn’t obvious, this album is very special to me. I never get sick of the guitars, the pianos, the synths, the organs, the glockenspiels, the percussion, the smooth and rhythmic bass, or the angelic voice of Yorke. Many props go to Nigel Godrich who made this album sound like it did. Modern day Dark Side of the Moon? Maybe, but only time will tell that. This album has many themes important to society today. The album should be taken as a lesson and a cautionary tale. There’s not much like kicking back and absorbing yourself in the malicious and virulent world of OK Computer and every time you listen to it…you can’t help but relate very deeply to it. Sympathy unending – thoughts unending – life unending.
Best Tracks: Paranoid Android, Let Down, Karma Police, No Surprises, Lucky