The Underrated Humor of Radiohead's OK Computer
The band’s masterpiece of 20 years ago communicated panic with a strangely charming smirk.
In Rolling Stone’s recent cover story on the 20th anniversary of Radiohead’s OK Computer, singer Thom Yorke says that if he could go back to 1997 he’d tell his younger self to “lighten the fuck up.” But I don’t know—to listen to the newly reissued OK Computer is to be struck by the one aspect of the album that’s still somehow underrated: its humor.
Yes, Radiohead is perhaps the modern pop-rock act most described with the word “gloom.” Yes, OK Computer ’s lyrics touch on car crashes, plane crashes, crushing disappointment, suicide by poison, and “a cat tied to a stick driven into frozen winter shit.” Yes, you may weep at the middle third of “Paranoid Android” and at the bridge of “Lucky,” and it is possible you have heard “Climbing Up the Walls” playing in at least one night terror. But Radiohead, crucially, communicated their despair with a wicked sense of absurdity. Their wit shaped both the album’s lyrics and instrumentation, rendering pessimism as a wry delight.
The playful vibe arises in OK Computer’s very first moments. “Airbag” lumbers in with cello and guitar that sound like how it feels to get up from the dinner table after eating too much, but quickly there’s mocking contrast in the form of chiming, pastoral guitar figures. Yorke sounds 100-percent sweet and naïve as he gives a TV-ready testimonial about the wonders of human engineering: “An airbag saved my life!” The song’s musical bulbousness is inherently funny, which suits Yorke’s concept of LOL-ing in euphoria after a brush with death.
A nastier comedy routine begins with track two, “Paranoid Android,” which the band has always maintained was a lark. When a 1997 interviewer asked Yorke if it was okay to laugh at the multi-part epic about “unborn chicken voices” and “the yuppies networking,” Yorke replied, “Absolutely, you’re supposed to.” He added that the song title was chosen as “a joke,” meant to satirize popular perception of him a creep, weirdo, and/or loser. This year, guitarist Ed O’Brien told Rolling Stone, “People thought it was prog, but prog always took itself so seriously. And ‘Paranoid Android,’ there's a kind of serious message in there, but it’s kind of cartoon-like.” The lewd animated music video confirms that point.
Of course, “Paranoid Android” is among the most revered Radiohead tracks not simply because “kicking, squealing Gucci little piggy” is a fun coinage. As with “Airbag,” the song cackles at the ridiculousness of life, but unlike with “Airbag,” its laughs are of disgust. The segmented structure bolsters the totality of the crackup: Yorke starts with a giggle at his inner conflicts, then begins ranting out of social alienation (apparently inspired by an encounter with coked-up, Gucci-wearing patrons of a Hollywood bar), and then roasts the general human condition. “The panic, the vomit, the panic, the vomit,” Yorke drones amid the band’s mournful pomp, setting up the sarcastic punchline: “God loves his children, yeah.” The guitar zap that follows is like a rimshot.
Later amid the crunched-bug imagery of “Let Down,” Yorke deadpans, “Don’t get sentimental, it always ends up drivel.” This is partly a jab at the band itself, which was so in command of emotional dynamics and so enamored with tragedy that songs like “Exit Music (For a Film)” and “Karma Police” edged toward the maudlin. But part of Radiohead’s genius is how they cut the proto-Coldplay mush with Yorke’s tart, dadaist wordplay (take the girl whose “Hitler hairdo” makes the singer feel ill) and sick irony. “Subterranean Homesick Alien” climaxes in a blissful fantasy of being locked into a mental institution; “Exit Music” has Romeo and Juliet issuing a killing curse as they kill themselves; the chorus of “Electioneering” is a concise political aphorism that scans as a dad joke.
But the instrumentation arguably does more of the comedy work. Producer Nigel Godrich and the band bedazzled guitar rock with artificially glinting baubles, and various elements in the mix seemed to jeer at or contradict others. The glockenspiel of “No Surprises” is dry satire, playing on the listener’s associations with toy boxes and nursery rhymes as Yorke calmly describes crippling anxiety. The glorious choral vocals on songs like “Exit Music” and “Lucky” sound washed out, air-quoted, as if we’re hearing not singers in a studio but rather carolers on the radio. That these outpourings of emotion feel canned doesn’t make them less effective—in fact, their visceral power supports Yorke’s commentary on the post-modern condition. To paraphrase him a few years earlier on “Fake Plastic Trees,” they look like the real thing, they taste like the real thing.
Still, the band’s many skeptics throw around criticisms like “joyless” and “self-serious.” But real devotees know that one of the ongoing jokes of Radiohead’s career has been that they loathe their own self-loathing. OK Computer’s final chorus of “Idiot, slow down!” seems self-critical, an admonition to one’s own racing mind. And in the claustrophobic 1998 tour documentary Meeting People Is Easy, the comedic high point comes when a broadcaster watches the “No Surprises” video—in which Yorke sings from a helmet slowly filling up with water—and announces, “It’s the most miserable-sounding tune I’ve ever heard.”
The 20th-anniversary edition of OK Computer, out Friday, comes with a raft of strong b-sides, including a trio of legendary live tunes that fans have ached to hear recorded. All three—“I Promise,” “Lift,” “Man of War”—are lovely little artifacts of ’90s rock, less knotty and frightened than anything on OK Computer but demonstrating the same sense of wit. Both “I Promise” and “Man of War” fall into the rich tradition of Radiohead songs that mock the notion of eternal devotion (romantic or otherwise) by delivering barbed vows with fingers crossed behind the back. Then there’s the airy britpop hymn “Lift,” which suggests Yorke was as embarrassed by his own fatalism back then as he says he is now. “We’ve been trying to reach you, Thom,” he sings in the first verse. The final line, funny and devastating, may sound familiar: “Lighten up, squirt.”