I’ve been writing some music review stuff recently on the Real Rock & Roll blog, despite obviously neglecting my own Blog to an absolutely criminal extent. And since last week I’ve had this itch to write a review of Radiohead’s OKNOTOK. I don’t know why, it’s just been clawing at me. It doesn’t really fit the music blog as 1) Radiohead are hardly a low profile band, and 2) the music is not really new, being 20 years old and all that. So I’ve put it here instead. And maybe I’ll start doing something a bit more with Twenty-Two B. I probably should really.
Anyway, here’s my review:
For years, I’ve thought OK Computer was Radiohead’s second best album. I know it represents the moment they became the biggest band in the world for a time, but it’s still not their best for me. My favourite is The Bends which I think is an incredible album, so unbelievably consistent, with knock out song after knock out song. I’ve changed my mind on this twice now in the past eighteen months. Firstly when A Moon Shaped Pool came out and knocked it down into third place. And now OKNOTOK has me reassessing it again.
Music history revisionism isn’t my favourite pastime but this is an exception because OKNOTOK reveals something very interesting about this album. It turns out the original release was a paler version of what it could have been. I didn’t see that coming I’ll be honest. I thought there would be some interesting tracks here on a par with some of the b-sides they produced in this period. Wow, was I wrong. This actually casts the record in an entirely new light.
The first three tracks on the second disc here are all stronger than songs that made it onto the original album. ‘I Promise’ is a beautiful timeless ballad that sounds steeped in influences. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it reminded me of until I read a review that mentioned Roy Orbison. That’s it! Roy Orbison. That’s exactly what it sounds like. It’s quite upbeat which puts it at odds with everything else and is probably why it didn’t make the cut. But it’s a great song and a tragedy I’m only hearing it now.
What can I say about ‘Man of War’? This has immediately jumped into the top five of my favourite Radiohead songs ever. It begins like the incidental soundtrack music in a French movie, but then shifts into gear when Thom Yorke starts singing. From there it just builds and builds in a very controlled way. By the end it makes my arm hair stand on end. It’s an incredible outtake. Why, what, how did this not make it into the original running order? It would have been one of the highlights. I’m truly speechless about this one. I can only speculate that because it inhabits the same sort of space as other tracks they maybe thought it was too similar. And it does fit right in the middle between ‘Karma Police’ and ‘Lucky’, but still, did the band take leave of their senses?
‘Lift’ is the one the music press seem more fixated on, proclaiming this would have been their biggest hit since ‘Creep’. I’m not so sure of that, although I do like it a lot. It reminds me more of ‘High and Dry’. For me, it’s less of a surprise this was cut because it is easily the most commercial Radiohead have ever sounded, and this was a time they were deciding to never sound commercial again. Still, it’s a shame this fell down the cracks of that decision making process.
I could cover every track here but I won’t as I’ll be going on forever. Suffice to say the rest of it is equally as good as the majority of OK Computer. ‘Meeting in the Aisle’ is worth calling out as it sounds like an embryonic version of the music they would go on to do on Kid A and Amnesiac. It’s the missing link in their musical evolution.
I’m also not going to spend much time talking about the remastered original tracks. They’re twenty years old, if you haven’t heard them already you’ve been living under a rock. The highlights have always been, I think, the singles ‘Paranoid Android’, ‘Karma Police’, the epic ‘No Surprises’, and ‘Lucky’ which I first heard on the Warchild album and provides the continuity link between this record and The Bends. Everything else nestles in between these touch points nicely enough, but doesn’t quite hit the heights it could have done, to my ears at least.
Now, I hesitate to say this as I usually hate double albums. Almost every one I’ve ever heard has left me thinking ‘if only they’d taken eight or so songs off it, it would have been much better’, but in OK Computer’s case I think the reverse is true. Adding all of these songs to the original release would have changed the mood of the album, undoubtedly. Would it have diluted it’s message? Not necessarily, not if the whole set were included. That would have increased the scope without polluting the themes it seems to me. I mean, I understand they probably had an artistic vision and were ruthless in presenting it, but on the evidence of what’s here, OK Computer could have been their White Album. It would have made more sense of their transition from an indie guitar band to an art house avant garde one. It could have launched them into the stratosphere. Then again, it’s just as likely they would have hated that…