If you don’t believe that the world will ever get better, another option is a firm belief in the fact that it will get worse. Slowly, but without much resistance from an outside entity. I wish I didn’t feel like OK Computer was pointing at any disastrous future, and I don’t know if it was when it was made twenty years ago. I am supposed to say something here about machinery, or how the album — particularly in its opening moments, signals the future in sound and melody, the way ”Paranoid Android” first sounds gentle and then becomes mechanical, robotic. First gentle and then slowly more violent, like an open palm closing steadily into a fist.
If we are being honest it is possible that Thom Yorke knows something about the end of the world that we don’t. Ok Computer was about despair in a lot of ways, but not any shared or communal despair. Rather, much of it was Thom Yorke, laughing in the face of some inconspicuous end. Ok Computer is, in some ways, one big joke, spread out over nearly an hour of a sparse but brilliantly constructed sonic landscape of choppy, technical sounds. This is what the future was to be, and the future was to be anxiety-ridden.
In the music video for “No Surprises,” Thom Yorke’s head sits inside of a glass jar. The jar slowly begins to fill with water, and then fills more and more rapidly. When the water rises to his chin, Yorke closes his eyes a bit and lays his head back before giving in and leaning entirely into the water after it reaches the top of his head. For nearly a minute after, the song plays and Yorke, his face submerged entirely in water, stares straight ahead, unblinking.
The visuals are anxiety-inducing, the centerpiece of an album that is still a landmark of anxiety. It is an album — in that way — that was ahead of its time. There is the tounge-in-cheek “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” which begins with the narrator waxing romantic about the warm summer air, and ends with him shut away in a mental facility. Yorke sings “I live in a town where you can’t smell a thing,” and I step outside my Ohio home and push my nose into the wind and smell nothing but perhaps the faint mixing of foods from the restaurants I live around. It was 92 degrees in Columbus this week. During a wedding on Saturday, I stood in the arms of the eager sun and sweated through my light blue suit. The sweat stain on my chest formed its own small country and I wondered what it might be like to live there for a while. Today, as I write this, the sun is stumbling in through the small open mouths of my blinds and falling onto my arms. It was 91 degrees today, and I began a run outside this morning and then stopped, opting to drag myself to the respite of the gym’s air conditioning. September in Columbus is usually idyllically fall. The temperature hovers around the type where one might get away with wearing a hooded sweatshirt and shorts out to the stores, and there isn’t much rain. It is a favorite season in Columbus, in part because Ohio State football is back on the field, and all that encompasses. An Ohio State home game Saturday comes with an entire mood — the city folds in on itself with joy. This Saturday, people dragged themselves sweating down high street, gasping in the noon sun. My friend Mia says that in a few years, Columbus will be Atlanta. I don’t know what that will make Atlanta.
I will get back to the album now — now that you’ve understood that I am not ok with the state of the world, and that means I am perpetually nervous, and what I like about Thom Yorke on OK Computer is that he also sounds perpetually nervous, and so I listen for those moments now. I listen now and wonder if Thom Yorke knows that I will be sweating in Ohio in the middle of October. I wonder if he is staring up at the sun in the same what that I am staring up and the sun and wondering if it is getting closer to swallowing us all. I want to say that I love every song on OK Computer but I am especially and perhaps most intimately concerned with it as an album of moments and not songs themselves. I know this sounds perhaps unfair to the album’s stellar output, but I know the exact time in “Climbing Up The Walls” when Thom Yorke sings “ Do not cry out or hit the alarm / You know we’re friends till we die” and I know the exact places I still get chills when it hits me. There is something about Yorke’s voice that makes it feel like sound has grown legs — a spider crawling slow out of a speaker and towards wherever you are listening. “Climbing Up The Walls” is, itself, about paranoia and fear, but it’s hard to translate what a song is about into what a song sounds like. And that, it seems, is the magic of an album like OK Computer: everything sounds as terrifying as it should, or as haunting as its meant to me. The way “Exit Music For A Film” sounds more instructional than anything, pushing someone towards that which, some days now feels impossible: keep breathing / sing us a song to keep us warm, before closing with a prayer for choking. In the world of OK Computer there is, in fact, always a way out, but something’s gotta give. You’ve gotta sacrifice something big to get there. The stakes are high, friends. The “out” at the end is gonna cost you.
My pal Steve would sit in a dorm room in college and play “Karma Police” on an acoustic guitar at all hours of the night. I don’t know if it’s the only song he knew, but it’s the only one he’d play. He’d strain his voice the way Yorke does on the record, trying to make it both airy and sinister. The major factor that works in “Karma Police” is that Yorke’s voice is seeming to beckon both forgiveness and revenge. Steve would wake up the dorm some nights, playing the song in the hallway during the times his roommate kicked him out of the room after getting someone from the girl’s dorm to come over and hang out for the night. We’d wake up to him howling “for a minute there / for a minute there / I lost myself” and people would throw open their doors and snatch the guitar from his hands. In these moments, I often stayed in bed and rested awake for hours, largely wondering what was rattling in Steve’s brain — what thing about this song was chewing through him in a way that made him want to get it out of himself so frequently and violently.
I mention this because that is the version of “Karma Police” that is burned into my memory. Not because it was great, but because it was the one that most captured the moment I was living in, much like the rest of OK Computer captures the now for me in a startling way. The dreamlike unease of “Karma Police” echoed down the halls of a college dorm, rattling off of each wall in the darkest hours of a weeknight feels appropriate. The song feels like it should exist in a space where it is sung by ghosts, in a haunted room. My college dorm hall was over a hundred years old. I sometimes sat in bed and wondered if I’d ever get to hear the walls singing back.
On the day we moved out of our dorm, Steve couldn’t find his guitar. We first thought it was a prank — something done by one of the handful of people who spent the year fed up with his late-night screeching of this one single song from several years earlier. But as the dorm cleared out and more people retreated back to the safety of their parents, the guitar still didn’t materialize. Steve was distraught and so I stayed to help him look. I lived in the same city, almost same neighborhood as my college, and so the urgency for me to leave wasn’t as great. We upturned beds, looked in closets, and even checked in the shower as a final act. One of those desperate moves you take when you know something might be lost for good. Eventually, Steve gave up and left to wait for his parents, heartbroken. I was the last to leave the dorm and on the way out, saw a wooden neck sticking up from a rose bush. I remembered that Steve had played the song one last time outside of our windows last night, much to the dismay of RAs who were also at their breaking point, but let it continue since it was the last night of school.
I didn’t have Steve’s number, so I instead took the guitar and carried it with me, hoping that I’d run into him next school year. He never returned. I often imagined him as Thom Yorke in the video for the song, drifting along in the backseat of a car, chasing an enemy on an endless road.
What I did not mention about the “No Surprises” video that I will now mention is that right when the tension gets highest, when the water is at the very top of the jar and Yorke blinks hard twice and you think about breaking through the screen to save him, he pulls his head far back, and the water leaks out underneath him. He breathes heavily a few times, and continues on with the song.
I don’t know what it says about me that I have forgotten what it is to come up for air. That I watch this part in that video time and time again and still get anxious for a Yorke who we are to believe is breathing underwater. That, sometimes, I watch the world outside and feel like there is no breath coming. Sometimes the sunlight leaking in through my windows is more violent than peaceful. Sometimes I am covered in sweat when there should be a breeze.