Album Review: RADIOHEAD – OK Computer OKNOTOK 1997-2017

10/10

Album Review: RADIOHEAD - OK Computer OKNOTOK 1997-2017

Radiohead are renown for ever looking forward through the windscreen ahead. They display little interest or time for navel gazing trips through their past efforts. So when they do get nostalgic it is something that demands attention. “OknotoK” is in its most basic format the 20th anniversary re issue of “OK Computer” with an additional 11 song compilation of B sides, and unreleased material. With the exception of the deluxe boxed set, releasing in late July, the other various formats will be available or dispatched on June 23rd in time for Radiohead’s headlining Glastonbury appearance.

Anyone lucky enough to encounter Radiohead’s curator like, award winning boxed sets knows they raise the standard of the medium. Tremendous attention to detail is put into each boxed set and that is why they are sought after collector items. The anticipation for the “Oknotok” Boxed Set is palpable. “Oknotok” certainly rises to the standard of its siblings. The band, Nigel Godrich and various others lovingly culled former defunct formats, cluttered cupboards and cold storage to pull the project together. The release contains three previously unreleased tracks and eight B sides which have been newly remastered along with the original album material. Great care was taken to utilize all the new technology on hand to transfer the musical content from the original analogue tapes for “Oknotok”.

A variety of other goodies are contained in the box; a hardcover book filled with artwork; most only now seeing the light of day and a complete lyrics section that will settle a few bets among rabid fans. The “just take my money” bonuses are a notebook of 104 pages in length containing Thom Yorke’s fevered notes while writing and recording “OK Computer”. Another highlight is a sketchbook containing artistic prep work by Stanley Donwood and Mr. Yorke (working as his alter ego Dr. Tchock) intended for the original release. Completing this offering is a C90 cassette mix tape in which all the members of the band lent a hand selecting various oddities, demos and outtakes. The vast project has been faultlessly complied together displaying all the clever irony that has always been trademark Radiohead.

For any fan of significant popular music in the late 20th century “Ok Computer” holds an undeniable position as one of the masterworks of the period. It is hard to believe it is already 20 years old. For those who want an in depth review of the original recording I refer you to HERE. The original release of “OK Computer” is a must for any serious music listener’s collection. For fans the new re issue proves to be a necessary purchase justified by the exceptional second disc offerings. This collection is intriguing for the avid Radiohead fan but not so esoteric that it excludes the more casual listener. The boxed offering although costly is an ultimate revelry in an exceptional epoch for the band, and gives phenomenal content for the money.

For this review I want to focus on the second disc. Like everything with Radiohead if you wait long enough the ponderables that seemed unexplainable suddenly make sense producing one hell of a gestalt moment. As these bonus tracks unreel they bring about an escalating admiration for the band’s innate good sense. Their constraint and impeccable taste becomes even more evident. These tracks which the band at the time considered not up to their standard or simply just not fitting the mood of the “OK Computer” concept; could have in other situations and in other bands been cobbled together in a quick follow up album to ride sudden popularity for a payoff. Which beggars the question why didn’t they do exactly that? As recent interviews and tales from the past relay, the band felt that move was unseemly; additionally they were utterly exhausted and instinctively kicked against the conventional wisdom of the record business which never sat easy for them.

Four years of constant touring had taken a heavy mental toll and each of the members was struggling to understand the implications of the unbelievable success they had attained with “OK Computer”. They bravely decided not to take the path of least resistance and grab the ready cash. Refusing to be pressured into an unforced error from which they might not recover. Instead they recognized if they were going to survive as a band they needed to take a break and find another musical path. Being the iconoclasts they were instead of taking the surefire route to more money and chart success they put themselves through hell and madness to morph into the next brilliant version of themselves. The results of that painful metamorphosis would emerge on”Kid A” displaying the band as an almost completely different entity.

It has taken two decades for Radiohead to circle round and take measure of the “OK Computer” era. What they found was a noteworthy collection of tracks that shine and deserve another chance. Some tracks are familiar to dedicated fans as they were released on the EP “Airbag/ How Am I Driving “ and some were utilized as soundtrack and narrative for the legendary documentary of their OK Computer tour, Meeting People is Easy. Those tracks are now complied together making for easy access, reintroduction and a twin album to the original disc. This portion of “Oknotok” acts like a cathartic decluttering of the “OK Computer” vault allowing the band to acknowledge the past as they move into the future. In many ways utilizing Freudian terms, with these tracks the band has finally brought to the surface all the things they were sublimated and could not be unpacked at the time. The lyrics in many of the songs speak to how close the band was to the edge of isolation and emotional disconnect. There had been too much touring, which created a vicious cycle of increasing isolation that fueled much of Ok Computer’s creation. The great pressure applied internally and externally led to a diamond of an album but risked their collective mental equilibrium. It is little wonder that for a long time the band members did not want to dwell on this era and had no interest in raking through the ashes. With time as a buffer the band could now finally reexamine the era. What they found was quality music left behind and the second disc puts much of the magnificent material that was shelved on display.

Oknotok ‘s second disc starts out with the never before released “I Promise” which contains a jangle acoustic guitar that harkened to REM. Earnest and yearning, it is a cousin in some respects to “Fitter Happier” with its catalogue of escalating actions; but more romantic in scope with wistful promises that will go unfulfilled. The martial drum emphasizes the weight of attempting to make the promises stick; “even when the ship is wrecked, I promise…tie me to the rotten mast, I promise”. The song comes across as simple in structure but really gets under your skin with each listening pass.

Man O War” is a white whale that avid fans have desired to have officially released for a long time. Originally titled “Big Boots” it was intended for the 1998 Avengers movie but the band self editing themselves felt it was subpar. At this time in the OK Computer era this song marked the point where the band had run out of gas and hit their self constructed perfectionist wall leaving them unable to rationally evaluate anything. The band was listening so hard they were missed the gem they were producing in their midst. On the “Oknotok” version the track gets a sonic revamp giving it even more impact as the paranoia captured makes it sinisterly engaging. The lyrical themes paint pictures of fame’s drawbacks, loneliness, revenge and the inevitability of death. Colin Greenwood’s bass work is exceptional. The revamp produces a dramatic epic with amazing strings and production. It has been a long wait but they “done it up proper”.

The ultimate white whale on the release is “Lift”. Among the many legendary songs left on the studio floor this one has a legacy almost as big as Radiohead’s career. It is a song about being stuck in a lift (elevator) both figuratively and literally. “Lift” is a snapshot of how Radiohead brilliantly blended the sonics of the Bends with OK Computer. The song has this brilliant dichotomy of Yorke’s angst ridden lyric contrasted with the unbelievable uplift of the instrumentation. It is a magnificent song but I can understand the dilemma the band faced in attempting to figure out where to place it within the constellation of songs on OK Computer. The sonics proved to have too many corners to fit with the ethos of OK Computer’s playlist. For its now official release the band approaches the song utilizing a slower tempo intro and brings beautiful texturing and musical maturity to the original approach. Make sure to catch the sardonic lyric at the end, “so lighten up, squirt”, a kind of “smile it might not happen” command to Yorke’s harried psyche.

Lull” has a delightful shimmering guitar with xylophone intro that becomes an even more impressive tune with Phil Selway’s drumming. The lyrics reflect the isolation Yorke was experiencing like some hot house flower and his explosions of bad behavior that resulted, “Distracted by irrelevance, the stress the tension…I’m sorry I lost control”. This is another stellar song, but once again if looked at pragmatically it becomes a struggle to place it among the OK Computer album playlist. The palette cleanser “Meet Me in the Aisle” is an instrumental that was utilized for Meeting People is Easy. On the playlist for “Oknotok” it sets the stage for the more familiar content that follows.

What follows is a section of songs for the most part once packaged for release on “Airbag/How Am I Driving. “Melatonin” starts off this section. This song is very reminiscent of early REM, I always think of “Time After Time” off of Reckoning or “Perfect Circle” off of Murmur when I listen to it. It is a sort of twisted bedtime story laden with the irony of the parents in the narrative wakes their son counterproductively to tell him of their pride and alert wakefulness for his wellbeing. The soaring keyboard and somewhat groggy vocal make a perfect setting for the narrative, as Phil Selway’s drums provide the grounding effect for the track.

There is a special place in my heart for “A Reminder”. The track was written in an area near my home in Hershey, PA during the band’s stint opening for REM on their respective Monster/The Bends tour. Yorke found himself stuck in the middle of dairyland bored to tears. His boredom led to his writing this touching song about how important it is to not lose sight of the passions of youth. It is like a living will set to music. The delicate vocal builds into an insistent vow as the pixilated sound effects glimmer over the top of the plodding rhythm which brings the track home.

It is a thrill to see “Polyethylene Pts 1 and 2” also included in the re issue. This is a song that convinced me that Thom Yorke could sing the phonebook and make it seem engaging. Part 1 is this delicate earnest song and then there is this flipping of the page, as he gathers himself together before letting loose. Part 2 is a slamming rocker, a combination of stream of consciousness/word salad juxtapositioning that mirrors the Pixies. It morphs from sweetly soul bearing to outraged self loathing, “plastic bags, middle class, polyethylene, decaffeinated, unleaded, keep all surfaces clean”. I always felt the track could have been wedged in on OK Computer right after “Lucky”, showing you I have spent way too much time thinking about this one! “Pearly” a big concert favorite in the OK Computer era was an overt critique on western culture’s bastardization and materialism. The track has a brilliant groove that seems to be a direct descendent from “The Bends”. “Palo Alto” also has an extraordinary crushing guitar riff and is the song to point to when you hear someone say Radiohead can’t rock. The first time I heard this song I immediately thought of the opening to U2’s “Zooropa”. The song was difficult to convey live which lost it popularity within the band. The lyrics addressed the sameness and cookie cutter assembly line that makes up so many lives, “I’m too busy to see you, you’re too busy to wait.” It fit perfectly with the themes of OK Computer. It is yet another brilliant track proving the band had an embarrassment of riches to pick among then and now.

The final offering “How I Made My Millions” is the most poignant track of the re issue. An exceptional song made more evocative by the fact that it was Yorke recording a demo on a 4 track at home; meanwhile in the background his then girlfriend Rachel Owen was going about her everyday tasks and they were picked up on the tape. At the time both Ed O Brien and Phil Selway insisted the track was perfect as recorded. The lyrics spoke to the imperfections that undermine a relationship while inadvertently giving a private glimpse into Yorke’s personal life. This ever heartbreaking selection is made even more bittersweet with the knowledge of Rachel’s untimely passing late in 2016 and the band’s dedication of “Oknotok” to her. I believe there is no coincidence in where this song is placed on the album. It brings a closure and final catharsis to an intense and oftentimes daunting period for the band. Now approached in hindsight those inconveniences are dwarfed by the ultimate tragedy of Owen’s too soon passing. Yorke has stated that he feels with “Oknotok” a weight has rolled off his back. He has finally faced the demons of his psyche that lurked behind corners in this time period and gained perspective.

The original OK Computer release is an epic journey through the fears and dread of the coming 21st century and the dehumanizing effects of technology. The second disc is a more personal revelation of where the band’s headspace was during the period. The members of Radiohead have emanated a sense of relief in coming to terms with the OK Computer era. They display that they are able to extract the good from the period and let go of the bad. With “Oknotok” the band recognizes the impact OK Computer had for them and celebrates the album’s brilliance. The release of “Oknotok” is like a cathartic requiem that allows the band to again move onward to their next great incarnation. “Oknotok” is an opportunity not to be missed and a spectacular illumination of a masterwork. In the end it is total immersion into the world of OK Computer.

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