Tuesday, October 4, 2016

1997 - OK Computer

I saw four girls at Menagerie Coffee the other day, and while they'd arrived together, each was talking to someone else at another location on the planet via their phones, or Tweeting or Snapping – what was the point of their entourage? Why were they there together? Did one of them drive? Were they friends at all? Tom Yorke predicted this kind of disassociation nearly 20 years ago. 

Heavily inspired by the avant-garde, linguist-guru Noam Chomsky and the underbelly of science, OK Computer's themes include 21st century technology, insanity, modern life, capitalism and the ghosts in the machine. Remember when the computers took over in "Karn Evil 9"? This time it's happening for real, without the B-Movie shtick. It's both frightening and soothing at the same time, like we've all been given Soma and are ultimately aware of our fate, but la-de-da, we plain don't care. Thom Yorke's take is less nihilistic. Indeed he states that the inspiration for the LP was The Beatles' "A Day in the Life." That's odd to me, as I've never really looked at The Beatles' opus as particularly nihilistic; merely indeed, a day in the life. More Vonnegut "Ho-hum" than Chomsky pessimism. This is big conceptual music nonetheless (but I will stick to my guns: the overarching theme here is the loss of humanity). 

It's interesting that OK Computer is an LP that one can speak of conceptually for hours on end, never once contemplating the music itself. With that in mind: In 1811, Ned Ludd sent intimidating letters to textile firms in Nottingham, England implying that machines were taking over the tasks typically handled by craftsmen. The workers feared that the increasing industrialization of British factories foreshadowed an end to their livelihood. Incensed, they took matters into their own hands and called themselves "Luddites." Today, the moniker is applied to anyone who resists technology's advance. OK Computer is infected with Luddism - not worker angst, but human and ethical alienation in the computer age. From the first track on, the album takes ironic jabs at technology by embracing it and impersonating its sounds. In doing so it speaks volumes about the excesses of modern technology and how our inventions tend to threaten our essential humanity. The album has a visceral quality that imbues the listener with the feelings of a person crumbling beneath the weight of too much input and too many demands: the monotony of airplanes, parking lots, freeways, antibiotics, airbags, treadmills, fridges buzzing, carbon monoxide, landfills, pumpkin spice; the stuff killing who we are. OK Computer taps into something distinctly unique to the post-modern condition. 

There's a feeling of the end of the world on this album - not an end of life, just an end of the world as we know it (and btw, I dont feel so fine). Whether given a second chance by an airbag, or lifted by aliens away from this horrible mess, it's all beautiful despair. Filled with relentless ambition, the LP soars with the dynamic "Paranoid Android" and pays homage to Bob Dylan with "Subterranean Homesick Alien."  The high point is "Let Down," on which Thom Yorke sounds as if angels were carrying him through an emotional odyssey. "Karma Police" is near perfection, and with songs like "The Tourist," "Exit Music (For A Film)" and "No Surprises," OK Computer shines as a brilliant example of what good this often-tragic modern world has to offer: great art through emotional torment and disaffection, Radiohead-style; like a new Renaissance.

The musical structures are often atonal and dissonant, with clicks and buzzes, loops, samples and computerized voices all thrown in to make the listener feel not quite at home in the musical space. The arrangements are are an amalgam of neurasthenia. One surmises that if post-modern man breaking down made a sound, OK Computer would be it.

In media there are those big films, big LPs, colossal moments when what is created is far more lush and dense, smarter, more encompassing than anything else of its time. Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity's Rainbow comes to mind. Lars VonTrier's Melancholia as well. There are those humans who in their creativity are ions ahead of the rest of us. Thom Yorke, particularly here on OK Computer, is one of those demigods. Yorke perfectly captured modern day anxiety at the time, Interestingly though, looking back on the 90s, I question anxiety in the pre-Homeland Security, pre-Global Warming, pre-clowns in the woods era; a time with an economy unsurpassed in the century, in a nation unsullied by war. Sissies! Serves to show the ahead-of-its-time nature of one of the greatest LPs ever recorded.