Radiohead’s success is a moving target, though for most, the pinpoint always lands in OK Computer. Their third album felt revolutionary in 1997 and continues to feel so decades later. It’s gone on to be preserved as such; it’s been sitting in the Library of Congress as a “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” artifact for two years now. For a record of such importance, surely it warrants a reissue, and finally — likely after some debate — Radiohead budged. OK Computer OKNOTOK 1997-2017 pairs a remastered version of the original LP with three unreleased songs and eight B-sides. It’s true that reissues are inherently selfish: a physical object giving in to supply and demand, often presupposed, that’s driven by either penury or greed. Few reissues are created out of necessity, though the reasons to do so exist: clean audio that’s grown comparatively dusty, pry open a tightly screwed narrative, or introduce the music to a new generation of listeners. In that flawless way that Radiohead always seem capable of upholding, free of gimmick and pungent ostentation, OKNOTOK follows through on all three reasons. It’s a 23-track, two-disc masterpiece — a word reserved for works that raised the bar and an act that OK Computer has now done twice in a row.
It’s easy to get caught up in the predicting abilities of OK Computer given how fun its themes are to shout, as if you, not Thom Yorke, were the first person to note them. Technology! Corrupt government! Mental illness! From the multi-sectional wail of “Paranoid Android” and its futuristic-glinting Mellotron to the unnerving depression-turned-mania of “Climbing Up the Walls” edged on by 16 different violins, all of which Jonny composed, OK Computer wastes no time presenting its themes. From the moment critics first heard it on an advance cassette copy, glued shut inside a Walkman knockoff, to countless college freshman unwillingly receiving a copy from a classmate and feeling the soft pulse of their brain imploding, OK Computer was both overwhelming and incredibly digestible. There’s no literal depiction of computers hijacking the western world. It’s all mindless conformity and deadpan submission, where we’re as wedded to consumerism as we are separated from society. Listeners are the neon sign in “Airbag”, the motionless movie audience in “Subterranean Homesick Alien”, the powerless crowd watching an idiocracy take over in “Karma Police”. They felt it then, and everyone feels it now.
Though built to be mechanic, Radiohead’s narrative of disconnectedness became personal. OK Computer was the record where they learned to build rock that audiences could sing with diaristic authority. When “Bring down the government/They don’t, they don’t speak for us” comes in “No Surprises”, it transforms from a sandwiched lyric to a perpetual battle cry. The dread of routine becomes an enlightening depressive episode when Fred, the band’s Apple Macintosh, enunciates the painfully mundane on “Fitter Happier”, laundry list-style, with unnervingly flat delivery. It’s a record filled with blurry movement that doesn’t grasp at nostalgia the way that motion often does on record. From the dreary chimes of “Let Down” to Yorke’s cries to slow down on “The Tourist”, OK Computer finds itself in constant lurch. So do its listeners. They’re pulled from the air crash or stuck in inching traffic on the album cover’s freeways. The sheer volume of connected dots and relatable dredge should have exhausted the material of its impact, especially on tour, but that only strengthened it. “It was obvious that [our manager] Chris [Hufford] pushed us — especially me — too far,” Yorke said in a recent interview. “At the end he said to me, ‘You’ve earned the right to disappear.’” So the band did. That step away from the limelight — Radiohead submerged into the world of Warp and synthesizers for Amnesiac after the tour — only made OK Computer, its technological prophesying, and its personal depth sink deeper into listeners’ collective appreciation.
A slice of those recording sessions were cut and slowly released as B-sides. Others, like the first three on OKNOTOK — “I Promise”, “Man of War”, and “Lift” — entered the world in live form, one in 1995 and the other two when Radiohead supported Alanis Morissette on her 1996 tour. Radiohead seldom revel in fan nostalgia because they’re too busy looking forward, reinventing themselves. Reissuing OK Computer and the B-sides is less a repurposing act — it should be noted that every song, save for the three unreleased tracks, are remastered, and the difference is palpable — than it is a missing quarter of the map. After The Bends, Radiohead promised to release a positive record — a descriptor few would use in relation to the album. Look closely at OKNOTOK and it reveals reluctance and hesitance, flipped sentiments that seem positive by comparison. It’s the line “I won’t run away again” on “I Promise” instead of a confident, decisive “I’m staying here.” On “Lift”, it’s the faint delivery of an unconventionally worded — for them — closing line: “So lighten up, squirt.” Radiohead didn’t say they wanted their third album to be a happy record. They just didn’t want to make a “miserable” record. There’s a difference between wanting sunshine and not wanting a downpour. OK Computer appeared under cloudy skies, tempting a storm that never breaks. With its previously unreleased counterparts and collected B-sides attached as OKNOTOK, it becomes clear that was the plan, that a storm pre-peak — arguably more terrifying because of anticipation — is less miserable than getting caught in a deluge.
Of course, the temperament of what’s being said in those unreleased songs depends on when and how it’s said, but most of all, by whom. This is Radiohead. It’s Thom Yorke’s convoluted, lonely voice. And like the best of their songs, it becomes timeless because emotional intent, particularly theirs, is flexible, those properties allowing it to become reshaped over the years as needed. “Lull” centers itself around a strange but ultimately positive chord progression, like Yorke is smiling after coming to an agreement. The buzzy pop of “Palo Alto” triples in size with remastered audio, an ode to alienation that sounds surprisingly pleasurable. B-sides fans have held as close as the classics for years become part of a larger narrative now. Their order is intentional, slotted with poise and attention to transition. It makes a dizzying instrumental like “Meeting in the Aisle”, which rides guest programming by Zero 7 gracefully, sound more at home prefacing the eerily bare “Melatonin” instead of “A Reminder”, which it prefaces on the original Airbag / How Am I Driving? EP. The latter gets a clean-cut start in its new position. And thank god. “A Reminder” is one of the band’s most underrated B-sides, a stunning slow dance over fuzzy conversations and automated metro announcements. Technology was displayed with devil’s horns on OK Computer, yet its B-sides catch sunshine reflecting off of them, arguably making technology’s ability to override human control all the more frightening as a two-sided figure. The personal narrative of the original album expands into full breaths with B-sides attached.
“Lift” is the only unreleased track to not be shared prior to OKNOTOK’s release. The studio version begins with a moody, faux intro before it cuts to the ‘90s era of the band in all the right ways: the rock-anthem quotes (“Today is the first day of the rest of your days”), Ed O’Brien’s single-note background hollers, the drum fill bridging the chorus back into the verses. Radiohead are a victim of their elevated standards for rearranging in that, now, the original take sits comfortably as a memento of Radiohead’s past, a marker for how much they’ve grown, not instrumentally, but in regards to what shapes a Radiohead “hit.” They’ve come to terms with it — and that’s how OKNOTOK as a whole stands, too.
OK Computer never stopped sounding timeless. In its new form as OKNOTOK, unreleased songs feed off beloved B-sides, forming a web that supports the concrete themes of the original album so as to make its points even sharper. For a record of technological dread and personable anxieties, it never felt so good to be reminded of what a dystopia the future could become — a future we’re already living in — and how predictable our very existence is that we already know how it’s going to end. Perhaps Radiohead’s greatest feat with this record wasn’t predicting the future, but accepting it. They don’t welcome it warmly. Rather, they accept it as an inevitable evil, and the intimacy that comes with peace of mind like that can be heard from top to bottom, all the way down to a quiet farewell in the liner notes and the knowledge that the only option is to move forward, no matter how harrowing that direction may be.
Essential Tracks: “Lift”, “I Promise”, “A Reminder”, and “Palo Alto”