in this age of one-hit wonders, radiohead have garnered that unique title in the popular music business: band with a third record. neither new nor a follow-up, radiohead's o.k. computer (capitol) is, if you listen to the band, the kind of record they've always wanted to make, made the way they always wanted to make an album. like it or not, radiohead album titles have always had some premonitory correlation to the band's state of mind, from the jerky boy trendiness of 1993's pablo honey (which spawned the ubiquitous singe "creep") to the coming-up-for-air metaphor of 1995's follow-up, the bends. o.k. computer is something radiohead are, well, okay with. as okay as a quintet of genial introverted paranoiacs can get.
"we're basically a dodgy pop band," says guitarist ed o'brien, leaning back in his chair. "making music has got to be fun for us. we were not going to come out with the bends part 2, so we had to be able to learn. and we learned a lot from this album."
recorded just outside of bath and oxford in several locations -- including jane "dr. quinn" seymour's mansion -- o.k. computer is a mass of expansive soundscapes and layered, often delicate guitar work. even when their feedback whines and grinds, the guitars somehow seem almost orchestral. this description has led to "progressive rock" references, which singer thom yorke finds useless and misleading.
"in some elements the album is quite filmic, or quite expansive," he says. "it's not neat and three minutes long; it's not nevermind, and it's not [prog rock]."
"i thought it was more of a phil spector thing," adds o'brien, "the way spector used space and the sounds of the rooms. we tried to make a kind of wall of sound, all of this stuff going on.
lyrically, the album stays true to the tone first explored on the bends -- dark, threatened words sung against the sometimes claustrophobic wall of sound. a theme almost seems to run through the album, one of future shock and urban decay reminiscent of director terry gilliam's brazil. o'brien says radiohead's muse is best inspired by jarring displacement.
"we're very stimulated by the surroundings we're in," he says. "nigel godrich [co-producer and engineer] said [during] the first two weeks we're in somewhere that's completely new and alien to us, we really respond to it. there's something that lets us completely concentrate on the music because we're unfamiliar with the surroundings and get off on that."
a melody-heavy sense of openness and mystery litters o.k.'s landscape. "subterranean homesick alien" is not a new song, but, according to yorke, it was saved from being discarded when the rest of the band started listening to miles davis' fusion classic bitches brew. "exit music [for a film]," which ran as the closing-credit music to the recent remake of romeo & juliet, has an echoing, haunting slowburn, while "fitter happier" uses a grating, computer-generated voice to recite superficial everyday advice such as "keep in contact with old friends (enjoy a drink now and then)." intentionally conceptual or not, o.k. computer is hard to shake off -- this is not disposable pop.
but the title, according to yorke, might be. "it's like the coca-cola advert from the '70's -- 'i'd like to teach the world to sing,'" he says. "imagine the same thing with a lot of little tiny home portable computers, kids of all creeds and colors, on top of a hill, all waving back and forth, going, 'o.k. computer....' that's sort of it. on the surface it's a positive and nice neat advertising slogan, but on the other side of that... it's fucking terrifying."