As almost everything rock and roll, it started with The Beatles and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967, continued with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon in 1973, was rejuvenated in 1987 with U2’s The Joshua Tree, and was brought into the twenty-first century by Radiohead. The “it” is the emphasis by artists on creating the perfect album, not just singles, catchy tunes, or anthems. While countless bands, artists, and pop musicians have created countless hit songs in the last half century, very few musical artists have managed to create entire albums that make people listen to them over and over again, and even fewer have created albums that are considered masterpieces. And, among the small collection of masterpiece albums, even fewer of those contain unifying themes throughout that make the album less of a collection of songs and more of one complete work in which each song is inseparable from the rest. Continuing a legacy begun exactly thirty years earlier with Sgt. Pepper’s, Radiohead’s OK Computer utilizes music, album artwork, and unifying themes to create an aesthetic and auditory experience unmatched in the world of rock and roll.
Few albums in the 1990s had as much critical acclaim, popular success, and artistic influence as Radiohead’s OK Computer. The 1997 album contains twelve songs that include lyrical themes of love, paranoia, technological domination, all set to the often gentle, sometimes chaotic melodies of the band. In a time that popular rock and roll music was shifting from the grunge period to a period of malaise and secondary status behind pop stars like Britney Spears and N’Sync, Radiohead was one of the few bastions of pure, creative rock music. OK Computer combined socially-conscious, yet highly introspective lyrics with highly evolved rock music that recalled the studio mastery inherent on cutting edge albums like Sgt. Pepper’s and Dark Side. And, like its predecessors, OK Computer featured memorable artwork that reflected the themes and songs inside.
When one purchases OK Computer, the first thing he or she comes in contact with is the artwork on the cover. While “OK” is traditionally used to describe a situation of calmness, serenity, or at the very least, a satisfactory situation, when combined with “computer,” it seems to suggest a situation in which people have very little reason to fear computers or technology. However, upon examining the artwork, one is presented with a chaotic mixture of paint, computer graphics, and hidden texts and images. Much like the memorable artwork of its predecessors, Radiohead’s artwork suggests what lies inside.
The album’s artwork centers around a winding series of ramps of a roadway, which are easily made up near their bottom but become more expressionistic near their top. Cars can be seen driving among the paint drips and smudges. Near the top of the front cover art is the simple black, block lettering containing the band’s name and the title of the album, while at the right are more abstract images.
Blurry and seemingly fused into the roadway are images of a blue and red silhouette of a human, as well as what almost looks like the remnants of a gothic cross. Near the top right of the album cover are some more abstract images and the words “Lost Child” repeated twice, while just below it is a blue and black “X” and what appears to be the computer-generated animation of an airplane’s nose. All under the influence of impressionistic murkiness, the album’s cover provides the viewer with plenty of food for thought that only enhances the content of the music, echoing the humor and the anxiety of everyday life which sometimes make people feel lost and alone.
With songs like “Paranoid Android” and “Lucky” the album’s tracks reflect the confusion and technological wonder of the album artwork. “Paranoid Android” is presented with lush melodies and multiple movements that reflect the overall theme of the album, which is uncertainty and alienation. Inspired in part by the fiction of Douglas Adams, the song is ironic in its tone and innovative in its musical composition. The music is enhanced by the technological prowess of the band, which uses computers, synthesizers, and various other recording technology to take an otherwise simple song and make it a complex combination of irony and melody.
“Lucky” continues the in the ironic vein by singing about good fortune combined with tragedy such as dying by love and getting in an airplane crash. This echoes the artwork on the cover, which actually features the nose of an airplane. When Thom Yorke sings, “Pull me out of the air crash,” he seems to be appealing for a piece of mind or some sort of savior in a world of ever-increasing anxiety.
While some may argue that the album has no unifying themes and that the songs are all different than each other, that is nothing but a shortsighted view. The album’s songs and artwork compliment each other and certainly reflect the anxiety inherent in modern society. Though “Paranoid Android” can be argued to be nothing but a nonsensical song that emphasizes rock and roll indulgence over songsmanship, close examination reveals that the song is nothing more than an appeal to common decency and the refusal of most to do so.
The album’s artwork could echo such a dichotomy by featuring the roadway and the ramps, considering drivers are often traditionally rude and self-serving, and ramps suggest a change of direction. By the artwork and the songs, Radiohead seems to suggest that things in the world are far from perfect, but if humans so choose, the direction could be fixed.
OK Computer is a classic album not because it produced hit singles, but because it captured a moment in time perfectly. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the album’s artwork and songs created a document that reflected the anxiety and alienation of the postmodern world, as well as the humor and irony required by those that realize the absurdity of it all. Those that listen to Radiohead tend to be knowledgeable in not only music, but the world around them, and the band provides more than its share of musical and poetic wisdom. With twelve songs ranging from airplane crashes to depressed robots to welcome alien abductions, there is something for everyone with an eye for substance and an ear for world class rock music.