Album Review: Radiohead - OKNOTOK (OK Computer 1997 - 2017)

I worked in a newsroom for two years, so I get that, sometimes, you don’t get as much time with something as you’d like. You’ve got deadlines and the constant need to generate content, so there are times when what you turn in isn’t your best—sometimes it’s not as well written as you would have liked it to be; sometimes it’s not as well researched as it could have been.

I imagine the same pace, possibly one that is even more frenetic, is present in the newsrooms for places of ‘music journalism,’ like Pitchfork, Consequence of Sound, and Rolling Stone. Maybe your promo mp3s of the album you are supposed to review don’t arrive in a timely manner; maybe there’s breaking news about R.Kelly holding women against their will in a ‘sex cult,’ and you have to drop everything you’re doing to cover that.

Maybe you have a thinkpiece about Lana Del Ray that your editor is breathing down your neck about.

You’ve got deadlines, and maybe what you turn in isn’t as well written, or well researched, as you would have liked it to be.

I mention Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, and CoS by name, specifically, because they, for the most part, are relatively major music news outlets, and roughly a month ago, they all published reviews of the 20th anniversary reissue of Radiohead’s OK Computer—titled OKNOTOK.

But even with all that praise, a bulk of those reviews—as well as many others out there—really failed to talk about remastering of the original album. A number of reviews spend a large amount of their time on the b-sides and three unreleased tracks that are also included in the set. And nearly every review takes a sharp turn into retrospective and nostalgic territory, discussing the mythology behind the album, rather than the album itself; they discussed what the album means in 2017, which is fine and all, but what it sounds like in 2017s is just as important.

In his five star review for Rolling Stone, veteran music writer Will Hermes was the only one who mentioned the remastering—with the throw away line that it was “remastered to no great improvement over its prior masterful version.”

Here’s my problem—and I get it. You’ve got deadlines, and maybe what you turn in isn’t as well thought out, or as well researched, or as well written, as you’d like it to be. You’re not like me—a music writer who takes himself too seriously, operating on nobody’s schedule but his own, running a blog that nobody reads.

The release of OKNOTOK was a slow roll out—first issued digitally, it was made available two weeks later on CD and LP, to be followed the next week by the availability of the deluxe edition—a set that includes additional and expanded artwork, ephemera, and a cassette (yes, an actual cassette tape) comprised of demo recordings from the OK Computer-era.

Listening to anything for the first time via mp3 is not the best way to hear it, but releasing music digitally takes little to no effort on the part of the artist or their PR team. And 20 years later, we are a long way removed from the days of journalists gathering around to listen to the album on a cassette in a tamper-proof Walkman.

Will Hermes obviously had a deadline, and I’m guessing he sat in his cubicle in the Rolling Stone newsroom, and through his ear buds, listened to a little bit of each track on OK Computer, and decided that, as a remaster, it just sounds a little bit louder.

But Will Hermes is wrong.

As I mentioned when I wrote a 2000+ word piece on the anniversary of OK Computer, it is my favorite album of all time by my favorite band of all time, and in celebrating 20 years of it, I wanted to do this reissue justice, which is why I waited until my deluxe edition of OKNOTOK actually arrived at my house, so I could do a direct comparison of the vinyl LPs included in this set to the original Parlophone pressing that I have been listening to for over a decade.

Yes, like all modern remasters, this reissue of OK Computer is louder—that should be obvious. And yes, the original album still sounds great 20 years later, so I am sure there are some people out there who are wondering why the band went back and tinkered with the mix in the first place.

What I suggest you do is, if you really want to hear the differences, get yourself an expensive pair of studio headphones, and actually sit down and listen. Because as I stated less than a month ago, when the album was celebrating its 20th anniversary of being released in the US—OK Computer taught me how to actually listen to music.

The short version of it is this—the remaster, as well as the deluxe edition of OKNOTOK as a whole—is breathtaking; we, as a society, do not deserve something this incredible to be just handed to us. Remastered from the original analogue tapes, OKNOTOK is like hearing OK Computer again but for the first time.

Again, the original mix of OK Computer has not become dated, or was always problematic from the start—it’s fine, and so you may be wondering why a remastered edition of the album is so impressive. It just is—it breathes new life and energy into the songs you know by heart—so much so that at times it can be startling. There are moments throughout where you can actually feel the breathing room that this revised edition provided to these songs—e.g. Thom Yorke’s vocal track on “Exit Music (For A Film.)” It’s always been mumbled and cavernous sounding, but now, it’s cleaned up enough that there, among the cavernous reverb and Yorke’s own mumble, is a new articulation.

I will add that it’s little details like this that will probably either be lost, or will not be of interest, to a casual listener. OKNOTOK, especially the deluxe edition, is something for the most rabid of Radiohead fan.

The big selling point for this reissue, even in the paired down standard edition is, along with the cobbling together of all the OK Computer-era b-sides (all also remastered), the unearthing and inclusion of three unreleased and incredibly storied tracks: “I Promise,” “Man of War,” and “Lift,” all of which have their own built-in lore and following.

The interesting thing about these three tracks in particular is that they show a band that is on the verge. “I Promise” and “Lift,” for sure, are two of the oldest OK Computer-era tracks—workshopped during the band’s opening slot on the Alanis Morissette Jagged Little Pill tour in 1996, and they both still find the band firmly grasping to the Brit-pop sound they would soon completely abandon.

That’s not to say that is bad thing, or that they are bad songs; no, not at all. It’s just that as a group, Radiohead seemingly very quickly outgrew them. The self-referential “Lift,” was at one time a contender to wind up on Hail to The Thief, but was left behind after the band entered the studio. Its mid tempo and brash, distorted guitar chords during the refrain puts it somewhere between the Radiohead aesthetic of Pablo Honey and The Bends.

Apparently written as a satire (of sorts) to the themes from James Bond films, “Man of War” appears in two iterations on OKNOTOK—a studio version with recently recorded strings is included with the b-sides, while a visceral live version recorded in France is tucked near the end of the demo cassette. The song itself made an infamous appearance in the band’s late 90s documentary Meeting People is Easy, where it shows them attempting to (and failing to) re-record it following the release of OK Computer, to be included on the soundtrack to the maligned action film The Avengers (not the comic book movie.)

A fun side-note about “Man of War” is that the band apparently tried to use it again nearly 20 years later when they were approached about putting together an actual James Bond theme for Spectre. It was rejected, and Radiohead were told to write a new song instead—submitting the slow burning “Spectre,” only to have it, too, rejected.

Grandiose and sweeping, “Man of War” is a fine song to stand on its own, but it, like the other two unreleased tracks (as well as the b-sides) would have seemed out of place in the final sequencing of OK Computer.

Of all the Radiohead b-sides in the world (of which there are many), people as a whole are probably most familiar and most attached to these OK Computer-era tracks, simply because they were the most easily accessible—especially in the United States, collected and released as an EP in 1998.

The OK Computer b-sides are a bit of a mixed back; none of them are terrible (as b-sides often can be) but they are either very strong, or meandering and unfocused. However you look at them, they all, for the most part, lack the real razor sharp intention and stark tone the songs that made the final cut on the album exude. The strong psychedelic rock vibes of “Pearly” and “Polyethylene” help make them two of the more memorable tracks from this portion of the release, as well as the crunchy, infectious “Palo Alto,” which at one point was the titular track when it was in consideration for the album.

The instrumental “A Meeting in The Aisle,” concocts a slinky groove, while the experimental “Melatonin” seems like a sketch, or rough idea, rather than a completed song.

Not included on the 1998 b-sides EP, How Am I Driving?, is one of my favorite Radiohead b-sides, “How I Made My Millions”—a song that Thom Yorke recorded directly to his Mini-Disc player at his home. In speaking of rough ideas or sketches, that is what this is—a sketch of a melody, wrapped up with incredibly somber piano tinkling around it. The lyrics may very well be improvised, and in the background, you can hear Yorke’s partner at the time, Rachel Owen, cutting up vegetables in the kitchen.

“How I Made My Millions” is the final track on the b-sides section of OKNOTOK, and it’s a very deliberate choice for two reasons—the first is that its home recorded/demo nature is the perfect segue into the cassette of demo recordings, but the other reason is much more stark. Yorke, as well as the rest of Radiohead, seem to go out of their way to keep their family/private lives separate from the band related things.

Yorke was involved with Rachel Owen for well over 20 years. Always referred to as Yorke’s “partner,” the couple had two children, and apparently secretly married in 2003. Their 2015 divorce was the core subject of Radiohead’s moody A Moon Shaped Pool in 2016, and, unfortunately, Owen passed away before the start of 2017.

The liner notes to OK Computer have been rewritten to included an album dedication to her—“We hope you are OK,” it reads.

* * *

To some, spending $140 on the deluxe edition of OKNOTOK may seem like a lot of money, but by the time you press play on the cassette of additional demo and home recordings, the thing has practically paid for itself with the kind of treasures it unearths.

Yes, there are a lot of weird noise experiments and out of context snippets to work through (super fans like me will enjoy hearing those), but as you navigate the fragile and raw four-track recorded early versions of “Let Down” and Kid A’s “The National Anthem,” the most amazing finds are the early workings of “Nude,” also known as “Big Ideas (Don’t Get Any)” at one point, appearing a decade later in a much more subdued form on In Rainbows, and a warbled, incredibly downcast, and simply stunning early recording of “Motion Picture Soundtrack,” another song that went through a number of iterations before it found itself tucked in at the end of Kid A.

All of this is housed in a gigantic black box; the LPs themselves are in similar packaging to the deluxe edition of A Moon Shaped Pool. Radiohead have been issuing these expensive collector’s editions for ten years now, and they’ve really hit their stride as far as what works and what doesn’t—this hardback book-style design really works. Containing three sleeves for the LPs themselves, OKNOTOK also includes fascinated and gorgeous expanded artwork along with additional liner notes for the album.

But wait. There’s more.

Nestled in the bottom of the gigantic black box are two additional books of sketches and artwork from both Thom Yorke and Stanley Donwood; included in these books are pages from Yorke’s own journals during the writing and recoding process of the album, alongside photographs and other bizarre, artistic ephermera.

Radiohead seem like the kind of band that isn’t interested in nostalgia, but OKNOTOK proves otherwise. There’s no way they can ignore how important OK Computer was and is for them, as well as popular music, and this collection shows that acknowledgement—that they aren’t so much buying into the album’s mythology themselves, but by including three rare tracks, demo recordings, and personal journal scribblings, they are okay with fans and listeners having mythologized record for 20 years, and continuing to do so.

OKNOTOK is not intended to be a person’s first time hearing OK Computer—please, go back and listen to the original 1997 edition first before moving into this. OK Computer’s themes are just as relevant (if not more so) today as they were two decades ago. This is still my favorite record of all time by my favorite band of all time, and in this reissue, I find the constant reminders of why that is—those reminders just have a sharp and wondrous new clarity that go along with them.

The special edition of OKNOTOK is available now via the band and XL Recordings. The less expensive version is also available if you are not a superfan.