Friday, May 16, 2008

Desert Island Discs: OK Computer

A while ago, a friend of mine, Bethany, began a frequent blog post idea in response to an idea from her father: desert island discs. It's kind of a popular thought experiment. If you were stranded on a desert island and could only have a handful of albums (assuming a way to listen to them) with you, what would you take and why? Typically, the goal is to point out some of your favorite albums of all time, albums that have made a big impact on one's life. I like the idea so much that I'm starting the series here. First up, I have to go with the top one on the list, a soundtrack to technological dystopia.

In 1998, critically acclaimed alternative band Radiohead went from "pretty good" to "this generation's Beatles" with their third album: OK Computer. This album has been noted by Spin Magazine as the top album from 1985-2005. It has the originality, songwriting, melody, and lyrical complexity that you only get in rare albums when things go just right. Of course, the album's popularity on its own isn't the only reason I have it here. I bought the album not too long after it came out. It has both the pessimism and the ambiance that has followed me for the 10 years since its release. It has grown with me, and the sounds have only deepened with repeated listens. I've also seen Radiohead play most of the album live, and they achieve a fullness that even eclipses the album in a concert setting.

The first guitar line of the opening song, "Airbag," begins the album with a sense of disorientation. The song discusses the feeling of a car accident and the feeling of empowerment that comes with surviving a potentially tragic event. Next came the album's first single, "Paranoid Android," which both delves into the fear of totalitarian control and the desire for that same sense of control that overruns you. Consider the lyrics, "when I am king you will be first against the wall/ with your opinion which is of no consequence at all." The song goes over 6 minutes, and winds through both heavily distorted guitars on both sides of a beautiful, melodic breakdown. This song is so complex that it took me a few listens to appreciate it fully. From there, we have one of the softer numbers about alien abduction "Subterranean Homesick Alien." Next comes the song written for the end credits of Baz Luhrmann's "Romeo + Juliet," "Exit Music (For A Film)." It is the second eeriest song on the album, yet the hushed intimacy builds to the dramatic climax with the line "we hope that you choke." "Let Down" comes next, a song that beautifully spells out pessimism. Ending the first half of the album is the most popular song on the record, "Karma Police." This somber ode to comeuppance imagines a scenario in which you are able to enact just revenge on those who annoy you. The song ends with what sounds like machinery breaking down as it fades into the most unique track on the record. The second half of the album begins with "fitter happier," a repetition of popular, feel good platitudes spoken by a computer voice. The effect is to disconnect the words from emotion, making them feel empty and cynical. "Electioneering" follows, the loudest song on the record and a direct critique of status quo politics. We move from the loudest song to the creepiest song, "Climbing Up The Walls." Thom Yorke finds ways both with notes and with lyrics to scare the ever-loving crap out of you. Then we transition to the lullaby, "No Surprises." This one is such an interesting sleeper because includes lyrics about fading out ("a handshake of carbon monoxide") as well as political messages ("bring down the government/ they don't, they don't speak for us"). This song typifies Radiohead's complexity on the album because of the musical beauty combined with such varied lyrical expressions. Next comes "Lucky," another eerie song that is also confident and complex. With such a somber, yet brave tone, Yorke belts out "it's gonna be a glorious day/ I feel my luck could change." The album ends with "The Tourist," another lullaby, but it expresses both the sadness and frustration of going too fast without slowing down to pay attention to the world around you.

This album has helped me comprehend my emotional state in some more depressing moments as well as helped me cope with what I often see as a horrific political/cultural environment. Though my outlook on some things has changed, I can safely say that I wouldn't be who I am without this album. It may sound cliche, but in some important ways, I found out who I was because of OK Computer.

ADDENDUM: After looking back through this entry, I realized that my review of the album feels kinda weak. I don't think I did the album real justice by just talking about every song and saying the album means a lot to me. I want to add a little more. For me, the sheer beauty of this album comes in the incredible mixture of lyrical content and musical diversity that still maintains an overarching theme. It's like a concept album without really being a concept album per se. OK Computer expresses fear and revulsion at a world gone terribly wrong, and this was in 1998. Think about it: Clinton was in office, things were going fairly well economically, we weren't fighting wars, and the biggest scandal was Bill's zipper problem. Yorke was able to see that something was amiss years before the rest of us could, and I think that's part of what has made this album stand the test of time more than any other in recent memory. His perspectives and turns of phrase have only become more relevant as the years went on. The album was truly ahead of its time, and it's taken many of us years to figure out how much the band's commentary on where we have been going in the past decade makes sense! It has given me the perspective to notice that the world we live in has serious problems, yet at the same time, despite the music's sense of despair, there's just a glimmer of hope in knowing that the ability to diagnose some of the problems with the world around you means that you are doing the right thing. Ultimately, that's what the album's about: understanding your relationship with a messed up world around you. That's what has given this album such meaning to me for the last decade. I have been able to use it when I was personally depressed about random things and when I needed to cope with some critically negative developments in the world at large. I think that's why so many have found this album near the top of their favorites lists.


bethany said...

Great post! I'm glad you joined in.
I'm crazy about the piano melody underneath "fitter happier". It's so melancholy and human in contrast to the computer voice.

Blake said...

Oh, so true. It's just one more example of the complexity that I love about the record. I'm kinda liking this idea. I think I'm gonna keep it up.