OK Computer (Capitol, 1997) was the album that sanctified their futuristic pop. For about six songs, this is a masterpiece of faux avantgarde (of pretending to be avantgarde while playing mellow pop music). The rest is filler. Airbag is the manifesto of Radiohead's vanity: a psalm warbled in middle-eastern fashion while the guitar strums a raga, a cello fills the harmony with menacing drones, and the drums beat mechanic and synchopated. This tedious litany sets the theme for the rest of the album: Radiohead bridges the Beatles' Sgt Pepper (more precisely The Benefit Of Mr Kite) and latter-day Pink Floyd, chic pop and languid, transcendental living-room psychedelia. However, the singer's phrasing and the arrangements of Subterranean Homesick Alien hark back to soft-jazz and pop-soul of the 1970s, while the guitar paints Pink Floyd-ian landscapes. The closing The Tourist is the extreme, rarefied version of this technique. Alas, this languid, over-blown manner leads to the same excesses that characterize the late Pink Floyd (lush textures, slow-motion melodies, drowsy chanting). Furthermore, Radiohead inject massive doses of magniloquent epos from U2 and of facile pathos from David Bowie. Lucky, an almost orchestral and choral, triumphal and apocalyptic dirge, is probably the best and worst example of such excesses. The gloomy requiem Exit Music, enhanced with choir of dead men, organ lines and noises, and the mournful hymn and renaissance musicbox of No Surprises, have their moments, but are hardly revolutionary.
The trancey litany of Let Down boasts, at least, an undercurrent of Byrds-ian jingle-jangle and a delicate filigree of sub-electronica, and Yorke does a good imitation of Mike Stipe's melisma. The best melodic progression is found in Karma Police. Again, hardly a revolution: a lament a` la Bowie, a marching pace a` la Sgt Pepper, a romantic piano a` la Billy Joel. The song dissolves in a cloud of effects. The noisy rave-up Electioneering is a welcome relief after so much sedative. The second half of the album is difficult to digest: just too much sobbing, and too much drama, among these undulating, cataleptic pop-soul arias. The three-part mini-suite Paranoid Android is the album's tour de force, mixing a Rolling Stones-ian shuffle, the progressive-rock of early Genesis and the gothic atmosphere of the Doors as Yorke intones a desolate yodeling, before, suddenly, the piece veers towards Black Sabbath-esque hard-rock. The track is emblematic of the whole album's pretentious and self-indulgent concept. Critics around the world greeted this album as the masterpiece of the 1990s.
My favorite Pink Floyd album has always been Wish You Were Here, and you know why? It has soul, that's why--it's Roger Waters's lament for Syd, not my idea of a tragic hero but as long as he's Roger's that doesn't matter. Radiohead wouldn't know a tragic hero if they were cramming for their A levels, and their idea of soul is Bono, who they imitate further at the risk of looking even more ridiculous than they already do. So instead they pickle Thom Yorke's vocals in enough electronic marginal distinction to feed a coal town for a month. Their art-rock has much better sound effects than the Floyd snoozefest Dark Side of the Moon. But it's less sweeping and just as arid.
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