Editor’s Note: The arts and entertainment department is adjusting its grading schema from a letter-grade system to a numeric score out of 5. This change is intended to increase accuracy and consistency between reviews.
Album reissues are funny — sometimes done for the most mundane of reasons (e.g., an artist’s catalog changing ownership to a different label), reissues often carry the stink of industry bigwigs trying to resurrect a poorly selling album — or extract some last-minute cash out of a band pushing the edges of relevance.
Radiohead fits neither description. Still touring, still producing new music and still in the heights of popularity, the band has little monetary or creative need to reissue an album. But OK Computer OKNOTOK 1997 2017 might just be the most relevant reissue ever released — one that contextualizes and explores the structure of one of rock’s most important albums.
Ok Computer was hailed as a revelatory offering upon its release in 1997 — the intensely internal, twisting convolutions of social and technological unease painted the picture of a bleak, worrying world.
It’s a world we inhabit now — perhaps even more than we did in 1997. Many have pointed to the uncanny degree to which Thom Yorke’s lyrical constructions on OK Computer seemed to portend the coming of our modern age in which technology saturates our lives — accompanied by an often-crippling sense of social isolation and malaise. That sensation was captured with pointed, frightening accuracy in the tingling, minor pluckings of Jonny Greenwood’s guitar and Yorke’s emotive, impassioned and sometimes vicious vocal delivery. It sends a chill down the spine, even today.
The album’s continuing cultural impact, at first glance, might suggest little need for a reissued edition. But OKNOTOK, beyond offering remastered originals and B-sides, organizes itself around three previously unreleased tracks, tracks that highlight the crossroads facing the band in 1997 and the creative decisions that produced the band we see today.
Those songs are “I Promise,” “Lift” and “Man of War.” All three songs provide a fascinating glimpse into the inner thought process of a band that has demonstrated almost absurd levels of patience and selectivity when vetting album songs. (“True Love Waits” made the live circuits for around a decade before being deemed ready for inclusion.)
“I Promise” is an acoustic guitar-and-snare ballad rooted in one strummed major chord and an almost military-tune-like slow drum roll. Its repetitive chord structure is mirrored in Yorke’s lyrics, phrase after phrase culminating in the song’s title. While it clearly didn’t fit the style of OK Computer, its far-delayed release in 2017 alongside last year’s ballad “True Love Waits” speaks to the band’s evolution, not just sonically, but in its relationship with its own music. The group is famous for neglecting fan-favorite songs in its live sets for years before abruptly reeling them back in, precipitating a veritable flood of shoddy cellphone YouTube videos celebrating the occasion.
“Lift,” meanwhile, organizes itself around a conceit that would have felt perfectly in place on OK Computer — that of being trapped, quite literally, within the confines of technology (specifically, an elevator — clever, right?). But while its lyrics may be thematically consistent with OK Computer, it’s as tonally dissimilar from that album as the Fall Out Boy of now is from the Fall Out Boy of the past. “Lift,” unlike anything on OK Computer, is a swelling, hook-driven pop song.
A loose descendent of the smash-hit “Creep,” its macabre lyrics are buried in upbeat major progressions, orchestral crescendos and choruses resplendent in vocal harmonies that would’ve tickled the nether regions of record label executives sniffing for another pop hit from a band that had failed to deliver one in the two albums post Pablo Honey.
That leaves “Man of War” — by far the most interesting, delectable, downright terrifying gem of the reissue. It’s a song that opens with one and a half measures of a major riff that jarringly slams into a minor version, alternating back and forth like a horror soundtrack therein. It drips with hollow, creeping guitar licks and aching piano phrases punctuated by fuzzy, weighted power chords that, had the song been included on OK Computer, would’ve been by far the album’s heaviest. In short, a near-perfect fit to the album.
So why wasn’t it included? It’s a question no one can answer, an emphatic middle-finger-up by a band that refuses to relinquish its long-earned label of impenetrable mystery or be codified by some half-witted music writer halfway around the world.
What is clear is that “Man of War” is one of the best songs Radiohead has ever written.
I was 3 years old in 1997; I didn’t get to buy OK Computer when it hit the record store shelves, but nevertheless, it’s an album that has been absolutely formative for me, one that has shaped the way I listen to and perceive music. With OKNOTOK, Radiohead has not only reflected on the band they could’ve been — and chose to forgo in favor of risk, experimentation and beauty — but has given me a chance to feel that giddy, childlike joy of experiencing a piece of OK Computer for the first time.