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GRAND CONTROL TO MAJOR THOM
by Sam Steele



"I'm back to save the universe"
-'Airbag'

SO HERE it is, then; after months of speculation, Radiohead have returned on a wave of wild loops, intergalactic interference and Thom Yorke's perpetually self-analytical whinging. Marvellous.
See, while it's great to have The Charlatans back with an album we can nestle up to and love; to get bong-brained with The Chemicals' sandblaster beats; to give thanks that Primal Scream have returned, this time with more psychedelic sun blaze than a Memphis barn dance; to have been intrigued by John Squire's new incarnation as a Seahorse; and to feel safe in the knowledge that Oasis will soon be gobbing off more of the same old familiar "pub rock" (TM Noel Gallagher), what's been missing is the flip-side of the fun coin, and Radiohead are fast becoming the unmatched masters of self-introspection - the '90s archivists of, as Leonard Cohen once described it, "the miserable human condition". 'O.K., Computer' is like the result of some bizarre experiment involving Kurt Vonnegut, REM, Arthur C Clarke and The Smiths: austere, dramatic, and, at times, shockingly unexpected.
Opening with Jonny Greenwood's trademark guitar crunch, 'Airbag' crashes headlong into a multitude of melodies. It's a super-confident sound of loops and spine-tingling sleigh-bells that takes off like a space-rocket. Thus, when Thom makes his bold declaration (above) you almost believe he's capable of it. This is, however, just the beginning of the trip. What follows are 12 tracks that are musically challenging, lyrically complex and emotionally fraught. It's a journey into the hyper-world of aliens, cacophonic chickens, dumb pop tarts and bogus politicians. A world of death, redemption and philosophical freedom. An album so resolutely laced with a deliciously down-beat melancholy that you won't be playing it at social gatherings - unless you're planning one of those late night stoned'n'awestruck "wow maaan" affairs. Or they get a few Propellerheads remixes going on the B-sides.
In its sheer breadth of vision, its deconstruction of traditionalist rock dogma, its weird dynamics and neo-classical aspirations, 'O.K., Computer' is nothing if not bravely off the wall. The line between pomp and pop is so artfully drawn in a six-and-a-half minute single 'Paranoid Android', that it instantly calls to mind Queen's 'Bohemian Rhapsody' - the last time anyone even attempted a pop symphony so daringly executed. However, where Queen relied heavily on ambitious vocal interleaving, Radiohead explore evocative instrumentation. They employ an arsenal of electro-mutations, found sounds and stuttering anti-rhythms, the cut'n'paste crescendo shattering onto a chorus of voices so beatific you can almost smell the incense through the bonfire of Greenwood's guitar.
At which point, a mere two songs in, the words 'Prog' and 'Rock' seem set on an almost unavoidable collision course. Huge avant-electric orchestral movements and metaphysical musings? Is this intentional or have Radiohead, locked away in actress Jane Seymour's genteel Somerset mansion (which they rented out to record the album) lost the plot completely? Or is life in the info-overload, sci-fi enthralled, sound-byte, spin-doctor'd '90s never more suited to such dramatic musical bombast? You can debate this all you want, for as Yorke has already sneered on 'Paranoid Android', "Your opinion is of no consequence". This is a more lyrically confident Yorke, who's not afraid of being abducted by aliens - on the somnambulant opulence of 'Subterranean Homesick Alien' - in order to discover some meaning to our ant-like existence.
'Exit Music (For A Film)' returns to more familiar territory. Ostensibly an update of The Beatles' 'She's Leaving Home', Yorke's voice is so infused with emotion that it's almost cracking over Phil Selway's broken drum beats. What starts out semi-acoustic swells into mounted ranks of choirs, rain-like samples, impassioned vocals and glorious harmonies. Deep stuff indeed.
'Karma Police' provides a welcome breeze of brevity with its faux austere, piano-led vitality and wicked descriptions of drug-buzzing pop-culture caualities - "Karma police arrest this girl/her Hitler hairdo is making me feel ill". Surely he's not referring to anyone we know?
'Fitter Happier', a poem, is placed strategically at the middle of the record. The curiously spookily voiced synthesiser intones a stream of received imagery: scraps of media information, interspersed with lifestyle ad slogans and private prayers for a healthier existence. It is the hum of a world buzzing with words, one of the messages seeming to be that we live in such a synthetic universe we have grown unable to detect reality from artifice: even our own emotions have become obscured by technology. But, while trapped in these complex emotional cages, we can still discover universes within ourselves.
Contemplation is swiftly kicked into orbit. A riff the size of Oasis times ten swaggers into view and 'Electioneering' explodes into a fire-breathing one-foot-on-the-amps dragon of a sneer at contemporary politics. But it's not long before Thom is 'Climbing Up The Walls' of his own insecurity again, grappling with his inner demons. We will, of course, always forgive him the odd wallow because (a) he writes such beautifully poetic lyrics and (b) the rest of Radiohead are like four men pulling in completely different musical directions before collapsing back in on themselves: never completely coming apart at the seems but teetering on the brink of musical mayhem. And that is precisely why 'O.K., Computer' neatly side-steps the abyss of moribund art-wank, instead managing to project something of the panicked confusion and moral chaos that crackles across the superhighway-saturated air of the late 20th Century.
So even when the subject is suicide ('No Surprises'), Ed O'Brien's guitar is as soothing balm on red-raw psyche, the song rendered like a bittersweet child's prayer. Penultimate track 'Lucky', first heard two years ago on the 'Help' album, is not simply a filler, but more of a thematic companion piece to 'Airbag'. And by final track, 'The Tourist', Thom's psychosis has come full circle, to a backdrop of 700 brilliantly different ideas combining into one cohesive whole.
On their 'Pablo Honey' debut the Oxford quintet demonstrated an innate, if not always consistent, understanding of how to write a great pop tune (the anthemic 'Creep', 'Anyone Can Play Guitar' and the heart-melting simplicity of 'Been Thinking About You' spring instantly to mind). Following that with 'The Bends', they married this pop sensibility to a growing conidence in stretching musical shape and playing new, bizarre games with form and psycho-drama, while everyone else was dealing in bright'n'breezy Britpop. 'O.K., Computer' is the next quantum leap of confidence, as career-defining as U2's 'The Joshua Tree', albeit beamed aboard the mothership of 2001. Radiohead are paying no attention to polite convention. They are cruising at warp factor ten, trailing sleighbells, synthesisers, whole bloody choirs of angels, and an entire neo-Freudian thesis in their wake. 'O.K.', you ask? It's awesome. 9


SOUNDBYTES
Thom Yorke's track-by-track guide to 'O.K., Computer'.


"I DON'T really consider this album to be epic. We didn't want to make anything you could play in the background. If it was played in a hip café it'd hopefully cause people to choke on their goat's cheese.
"We recorded a lot through the night, getting up at five in the afternoon and working until 6am. But then I was getting up at 10am to write the words. Sometimes.
"Stuff that meant anything to me came in the form of what I call polaroids in my head. The immediate external world became very bright and powerful, like it was on fire, and that was when I wrote stuff. I was a lot more unwilling to dig into my own feelings because I felt much more part of a whole going on around me. Even if this was profoundly disturbing, it made me smile."

Airbag: "It's about fear of machinery and is very ambivalent. It's a song for luddites, but it's also very hopeful. Like, we aren't scared. Life goes on everywhere, even in a neon sign."

Paranoid Android: "I was recording the faces that I saw the night I wrote the words to the song."

Subterranean Homesick Alien (Uptight): "I believe that there are little ones [aliens] who are buried underground, waiting to surface. All these fantasy conspiracy TV shows are great, but the water here is poison. I just wanna be visited. I wanna see 'em. I wanna see ghosts. I want to know. I want to be able to walk down the street and laugh at everything, knowing that there are all these little green creatures with incredibly large brains and beautiful black eyes looking after us with little video cameras."

Exit Music (For a Film): "The inspiration? Fragments of whatever her name is who plays Juliet [Claire Danes] when she put up the shiny Colt 45 to her head. I've always had this thing when I watched the cool version from the late '60s; that was the most influential film of my early-teenage years. But, at the age of 13, I could never work out why Romeo didn't pack a case, grab Juliet that morning, and jump out the window and take her with him. I was totally in love with Juliet in that film - Olivia Hussey. It just never made sense that Romeo was such a wet bastard."

Let Down: "'I go to sleep on one beach/wake up on another/boat all fitted out/tugging against its rope' " - Raymond Carver.

Karma Police: "This is a song for someone who has to work for a large company. This is a song against bosses, fuck middle-management! Hahaha."

Fitter Happier: "I had about three months where I couldn't write anything, but I constantly had lists. Then I realised that it was the only way I was going to say what I needed to say. Sometimes, before you have a genuine feeling it is circumvented by the outside, your brain is apologising for things that haven't even happened yet. But me, I listen to the piano bit."

Electioneering: "We live under a world banking system and media that make it almost irrelevant who is in power. Political systems worldwide are at the mercy of business and bullshit economies. I can't recycle any of the polythene packaging that fills my house. Why?"

Climbing Up The Walls: "Some people can't sleep with the curtains open in case they see the eyes they imagine in their heads every night burning through the glass. Lots of people have panic buttons fitted in their bedrooms so they can reach over and set the alarm off without disturbing the intruder. This song is about the cupboard monster."

No Surprises: "It was about being poisoned, being full with debris and waste. We wanted it to sound like 'What a wonderful world' and Marvin Gaye. There's no hint of suicide in this. It's the sound of newly fitted double-glazing: all hopeful, clean and secure."

Lucky: "Maybe all the machinery like aeroplanes and cars, etc, function because of collective will. There is no way it would get off the ground or move forward otherwise."

The Tourist: "Constant nerves, nerve endings fraying like badly-wired plugs. Trying to take in everything at once. The old woman who sticks her knife in the toaster to get the toast out when it's still on. You can't touch her directly because you will also be electrocuted. So you have to find a broom handle to knock her frying body away."