Kyle Smith of National Review on Radiohead's OK Computer:
[Radiohead] don’t seem to grasp that music has to fit in someplace, to play some purpose. It goes with walking (the Beatles), working (Bach), shirking (Yacht rock), driving (the Eighties station), imbibing (country), getting up (pop), getting down (R & B), working out (hard rock, rap), and possibly even dancing (I wouldn’t know).
If I were an under-forty online female, I would say something like "I can't even." (Or maybe that would be an under-forty female of five years ago, as the fashionable slang may have changed by now. I don't recall having heard that recently.) The jewel in that list is that Bach is for "working." No, Bach is either for listening with the deepest attention you can manage to beauty whose very existence brings tears to your eyes, or, in the devotional works, for a prayer-like state of meditation on Christian themes. Or sometimes both.
Smith is listed as "critic at large" for National Review, and is the theater critic for The New Criterion. He's an entertaining writer, and his theater criticism always sounds intelligent and plausible to me, though I have not seen and never will see any of the productions he reviews. But I certainly won't take what he says about music very seriously from now on.
He really hates OK Computer, and goes on for several hundred words explaining in detail how much he hates it, and why. Fair enough; it's not to everyone's taste. But his opening premise ought to make the reader wary of trusting his opinion. I'll include a link to it, though it may be available only to subscribers: "Against Suicide Rock."
I think the album is getting this attention because this year is its 25th anniversary, which I will say quickly and predictably is hard to believe, time flies, etc. Another NR writer, Jack Butler, published a completely different view of it a few weeks ago: "A Pig In A Cage On Antibiotics"; you wouldn't know from that title that it's wildly enthusiastic.
All this caused me to listen to the album again for the first time at least since I stopped commuting to work six years ago. I think I only heard it back in its day because one of my then-teenaged children had it. In fact I think the CD I have may have been borrowed or inherited from her. And as far as I can remember I never heard it anywhere but in my car, and had never actually sat and listened to it at home on good equipment. Now I have, and while I liked it before I didn't quite get why so many people think it's a great work. Now I do. I'm not widely knowledgeable about the pop music of the last few decades, but I'm pretty sure this is one of the outstanding albums of the time.
It is indeed, as Smith complains and Butler enthuses, a fragmented, seemingly disorganized work. In that respect it made me think of "The Waste Land," though in saying so I don't mean that I think it's on the same artistic level. But as a piece of popular music, including not only composition and performance but arrangement and recording, it is brilliant, deserving to be compared with other landmarks in the genre. I thought specifically of Dark Side of the Moon: you might say this is a Dark Side for a more anxious, uneasy, disoriented, technologically oppressive time. And Dark Side was not exactly cheerful or comforting.
The songs are not so much songs in the usual sense as complex compositions for voice and instruments. I doubt there have been many covers of any of them. And I doubt that any but the most zealous and gifted teenage guitarists sit around trying to play them. The music is worlds away from the bluesy foundations of most rock. Plaintive melodies are embedded in, or give way suddenly to, instrumental work going off in sometimes very different directions. Rhythms shift and jerk. Lyrics are sparse and fragmented, though not so much so that they fail to do useful work. It's all very complex and carefully assembled, or at any rate it really does sound assembled, not at all spontaneous.
My only small reservation about the album is that it sags a bit toward the end. Something more than halfway through there's a very weird little interlude in which a synthetic voice recites a string of self-help counsels: "Fitter, happier, more productive...." The voice, if I remember correctly, is that of the text-to-speech reader of the then-current Macintosh. It always sounded somewhere between ludicrous and disconcerting and it's a perfect touch here. This leads into a sequence of three songs that end with the sweetest moment of the album, "No Surprises," which to my taste would be the perfect closer. But there are two more songs which, though they're excellent on their own, seem to me in context a bit of a falling-off.
In case you haven't heard the album, here's a taste--the first song, "Airbag":
And thank you to Kyle Smith, who caused me to hear it in its full glory.