But this critic's gonna go perverse to the perverse, and remind rock fans out there that just because a record is multifaceted, nihilistic, and courageously experimental, it's not necessarily alienating or pandering to the acid set. OK Computer is one of the best records of 1997, if not one of the best of the last five years (as is The Bends, Radiohead's previous release). And my guess is that the Oxford, England, quintet and its major label, Capitol, thought this one would fall unnoticed through the cracks of pop music's weak judicial system (seeing as how these songs sound nothing like "Creep," the very Nirvana-like hit that broke the band stateside in '93). That OK Computer is both heralded and lambasted is a testament to the challenge it issues: Some people find its organic roiling and techno-muscle mixed with traditional guitar grind a wise offspring of today's music sensibilities; others find it obtuse and disconcerting. At last! A pop record that sets off argument and discussion! Kinda like great art.
But at its hard-wired heart (yes, it has one) lies the very thing that really separates the record from impenetrable art rock: OK Computer isn't blowhard social commentary (though there are smatterings of Big Brother paranoia) or hyper-academic musings on the nature of man. These songs carry the same themes all great post-punk music embraces--love gone sour, isolation, and self-doubt. Frontman-songwriter Thom Yorke has a way of using his words and voice to communicate raw emotion behind even his most opaque and personal passages. That his sneering, pouting, despondent, and desolate self is projected so clearly through such heart-wrenching melodies could make listening to the record a nearly awkward experience, like accidentally walking in on a guy in the middle of a suicide attempt. But the complexity of the record's instrumentation makes a perfect filter--Yorke can sound off all he wants because he's protected by layer upon layer of sound. Radiohead's music has transcended what's easy and predictable; everything about it runs deep and dense, forever unraveling with each new listen.
Whether the band can deliver all this during a live set is another matter. Rumors spread. I've heard the band does. I've also heard it doesn't. One of the reasons to catch a band live is to witness another angle of the music; great musicians often use the stage to present another, more immediate version of the studio-perfected recordings. It keeps everyone, the band and the fans, interested. But to pull off even a fraction of the complex voodoo of OK Computer, Radiohead's live chops and overall presence will have to be pretty damned nuanced and powerful.
Unlike some critics, I'll be at the Music Hall on Sunday night to see if the band can make good on its own record.
Radiohead plays at the Music Hall at Fair Park, Sunday, March 29. Spiritualized opens. For info, call 373-3000.