'OKNOTOK' and the Nostalgic Radiohead
Radiohead completists already own much of what is on OKNOTOK, but those wanting to experience OK Computer for the first time need look no further than here.
23 June 2017
In the sea of exultant, almost religious sea of adjectives pinned to Radiohead and its music by fans and critics, one word never appears: "nostalgic". Whatever one's view of Radiohead's career progression, it remains undeniable that the band maintains a steady interest in self-reinvention. The leap from The Bends to OK Computer can be measured in miles rather than inches; from OK Computer to Kid A, in decades rather than years. The quintet continues to perform old tunes in their live shows -- even "Creep", the product of a much younger version of Radiohead -- but seemingly never out of a sense of obligation. Radiohead doesn't play "My Iron Lung" and "No Surprises" because they have to.
This indifference to revivifying the past was a focal point in the mildly controversial series of EMI/Capitol reissues of Radiohead's back catalogue in the late 2000s. After Radiohead left EMI in favor of alternative album distribution, such as the "pay-what-you-will" model employed for 2007's In Rainbows, EMI cashed in on whatever it could of the Radiohead discography, given that it still owned rights to a large amount of the group's music. None of the group's five members started an all-out-war with EMI; despite backlash from many publications and fans, Radiohead remained, for the most part, disinterested.
The music press happily took up the fight on Radiohead's behalf: Pitchfork accused Capital of "whoring out the Radiohead catalogue", and The Guardian boldly declared that EMI had "stab[bed] Radiohead in the back catalogue". If any of the musicians in Radiohead shared these sentiments, they didn't take to the web or print to pen any strongly worded rejoinders to their former label. Colin Greenwood did call the reissues a "cash-grab" for a dying label in one interview, but in a fashion far less impassioned than many of Radiohead's devotees. After these reissues, Radiohead did what it always does: move on to the next thing.
This disposition of Radiohead makes the choice to release a 20th anniversary deluxe edition of 1997's OK Computer, entitled OKNOTOK, curious at the very least. Perhaps, as Zach Schonfeld put it, "OK Computer is so great it convinced Radiohead, who detest nostalgia, to indulge a tiny bit of nostalgia." Writing for British GQ, Jonathan Dean speculates that the release of OKNOTOK marks the end of Radiohead, building on fan theories which posit that A Moon Shaped Pool (2016) will be the last Radiohead LP. Dean frames OKNOTOK as another "gift" to Radiohead fans for its inclusion of three highly sought unreleased tracks -- "Lift", "I Promise", and "Man of War" -- right after finally recording a studio version of "True Love Waits" on A Moon Shaped Pool. In seeing these archival tunes unveiled to the public, Dean argues, "You get the sense they cruise the very active Reddit forum dedicated to them, deciding how best to repay the devoted... and the best way to bow out." As Paula Mejia compellingly illustrates for Complex, the overeager theorizing about Radiohead's every move mistakes being taciturn with being cryptic. Still, OKNOTOK does constitute an atypically nostalgic move by a band that, if it wanted to, could easily shut up and play the hits for the remainder of its career.
The notion of a Radiohead-approved deluxe reissue is especially odd when it comes to OK Computer, an album which already received a two-disc reissue back in 2009. Of course, that reissue was done by EMI, and given the aforementioned tension between Radiohead and its former label, diehard fans could easily chalk up that reissue as corporate profiteering. Some publications, including the UK's Independent, openly called EMI out for just that. But even if the EMI OK Computer reissue is illegitimate in artistic spirit, it legitimately exists and can be purchased. For Radiohead to trounce EMI, it has to do something substantial to warrant the upgrade for its fans, who likely already own one if not more copies of the record. While it's nice to have a Radiohead stamp of approval on an OK Computer reissue, that alone can't be enough to justify forking over money, even for the basic two-CD edition of OKNOTOK.
Those unwilling to shell out the $130 USD price tag (£100 GBP, or €120 EUR) for the extravagant box set of OKNOTOK will have to settle for a triple-sleeve gatefold vinyl LP, a two-disc CD, or a digital download. (Knowing the completist tendencies of the Radiohead fanbase, I suspect many will not settle for just one.) The box set of the album includes a hardcover book of never-before-seen photographs, a facsimile of one of frontman Thom Yorke's notebooks, and a cassette mixtape of archival audio demos from the OK Computer sessions. The top-dollar edition of OKNOTOK was not made available to me for review, so all I can speak to is the audio of the reissue, which was remastered from the original studio analog tapes.
By way of explaining the need for a new remaster, OKNOTOK's official website states, "The original analogue tapes are the highest definition version of the record, and nothing will ever beat them. However in the 20 years since the original release mastering technology has improved a lot, and with new equipment and techniques we can make a digital version that's an improvement of the original transfer." To this critic's ears, the 2009 EMI two-disc reissue, to say nothing of the original OK Computer release itself, sounds mighty fine. This isn't to say that a skilled producer couldn't do some great remixing work with the album, but rather that sonically OK Computer falls squarely into the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" category. The 2017 remaster on OKNOTOK sounds great, but so do the other versions that led up to it.
Anyone with the cash for the deluxe edition will get the true 20th-anniversary experience of OK Computer. For the majority of folks, however, OKNOTOK will live or die by the three songs that give it uniqueness apart from the new remaster. As with the 2009 EMI reissue, it's nice to have OK Computer's many B-sides compiled here, but anyone who owns that prior reissue or any of the OK Computer CD-singles won't need another CD of that same material. The standard vinyl and CD versions of OKNOTOK are the ideal editions to own for anyone new to Radiohead or OK Computer, yet Radiohead is the kind of band whose releases are going to be bought by those deeply familiar with the band, down to every minutiae in its back catalogue. To the uninitiated, OKNOTOK stands as the complete OK Computer; to anyone well acquainted with the band, OKNOTOK's standard editions represents a near-duplicate entry in the CD collection.
"I Promise", "Man of War", and "Lift" live up to the hype they have steadily built over the course of the last decade or so. The acoustic guitar-led "I Promise", with its military march snare beat, rises to a gorgeous post-chorus elevated by a tasteful string section. Even within the context of OK Computer's technoparanoia, this moment -- an aural representation of the golden hour – sounds downright romantic. "Lift", which sonically feels more sonically akin to The Bends than OK Computer, employs strings more subtly, with Yorke's longing vocals and Jonny Greenwood's decidedly '90s alternative guitar distortion coalescing into a lovely, melancholy whole.
Of the three new tunes, "Man of War" easily stands out. OK Computer's tracklist hardly has any fat on it -- even the interstitial "Fitter Happier" aids the flow of the record – but had some extra room been made for "Man of War", the album wouldn't have lost any of its luster. The song opens with a guitar figure that, similar to the melody of "No Surprises", immediately transfixes. In an unexpected but fascinating turn, the chorus hits with a wallop of distortion reminiscent of Oasis, whose bloated Be Here Now -- released in the same year as OK Computer -- forms a study in contrasts of British rock in 1997. Melodically, "Man of War" is a cousin of Oasis' "Stand by Me", even though the former bests the latter by no small margin. This represents a brief flirtation with Britpop on Radiohead's part, but it's one that's deftly incorporated into the OK Computer aesthetic. Known as "Big Boots" in unofficial and demo versions, "Man of War" sounds quite like the unreleased version that's kicked around for years, but to finally hear it on album is something spectacular.
As for the rest of OK Computer, what can be said that hasn't already been said? Writing and talking about the album is one of the rock critic's Ten Commandments or Five Pillars. We're supposed to talk about how the album apotheosizes Radiohead's guitar-centered rock, a trend that some including myself would like to see the band revisit more often. About how "Paranoid Android" represents a tremendous leap from the style of The Bends, with its labyrinthine structure serving as a near album-in-miniature. About how in its placid, simple beauty, the melody of "No Surprises" achieves the sublime. About how, just as its lyrics suggest, it's easy to forget ourselves when experiencing the melancholy of "Karma Police". There's seemingly no limit to the effusiveness I or anyone can express about OK Computer. OKNOTOK reinforces every good thing that's been said about OK Computer, primarily because it has a really easy job. Sometimes a highly revered album deserves the status bestowed upon it, hype and groupthink be damned.
Had OKNOTOK never existed, OK Computer would have lived on just the same. If one thinks of a new reissue as a chance for re-evaluation and reflection, there are certainly things to glean from OKNOTOK, particularly when it comes to the three unreleased tracks. They show that even masterpiece albums are rarely fixed entities; once upon a time, a tune like "Man of War" could have coexisted with "Subterannean Homesick Alien" and "Exit Music (for a Film)" had certain choices been made. That and other discoveries – for those willing to pony up for the deluxe edition – await those who are willing to dive into this very familiar work once again. OKNOTOK can be understood as Radiohead's laying claim to a proper reissue on its own terms, not those of its former labels. For that, a little nostalgia can be forgiven, if not justified.
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