When they recorded their third album in 1997, Radiohead’s lead singer Thom Yorke noted in interviews that he wanted to approach a more positive outlook in his songwriting — one that rejected the grunge, loner outlook of their first two albums. What resulted was “OK Computer,” a classic of urban and technological paranoia that perfectly suited the modern age.
Now the band is releasing long-awaited outtakes from these 1997 sessions in the new collection OK Computer OKNOTOK 1997 2017.
It’s strange to hear songs that are just as good as those on the original album, but it’s also interesting to consider the path the band may have taken if they actually were released.
To promote the new collection, the band has released two new music videos for the tracks “I Promise” and “Man of War.” These alone, coupled with the release of “Lift,” a long-time live fan favorite, offer a new perspective on the band’s narrative.
Radiohead famously detested the media-given label of their music being “Britpop.” It can be argued that if any of these outtakes had been released at the time, that label may have stuck for their whole career. The band even said at the time that they intentionally left off “Lift,” lest they have another “Creep” on their hands and become too popular for their own good.
All three of these tracks are close cousins of the dour but lullaby-like “No Surprises” from the original release. They offer a glimpse into a more human-sided and somewhat more optimistic approach that could have been.
“Lift” has a shimmering guitar line with a lilting string backing for the soaring chorus. It paints a picture of the world of anonymous corporate coffins suggested by many of Yorke’s lyrics at the time. This time more specifically the singer is trapped inside an elevator. Like the original opening track “Airbag” it suggests some kind of promised peace after a traumatic incident. It’s easy to see how this anthem of a song would have put them in the same vein as The Verve or perhaps a more vulnerable Oasis.
The new video for “Man of War” immediately calls to mind “Karma Police”, with a nameless man being pursued by menacing nameless individuals through deserted streets. Whereas that video was set at night, “Man of War” switches between night and day, innocence and paranoia, perhaps consciously referencing the line between sweetness and sourness the band was straddling at the time with their songwriting.
The video for “I Promise” is vintage Radiohead that stands along their best and most visually distinct videos, following a disembodied robotic head on a nighttime bus ride. It’s also a track that may have had the most potential as a single. Once again it calls to mind a sort of tainted reassurance, in the vein of “Airbag” or “Lucky.” Yorke’s angelic 90’s falsetto carries the song and the video as one truly feels empathy for a discarded piece of an android.
What one gets from these releases is not a rewrite of history; “OK Computer” is rightfully a classic as it stands, and it’s easy to ask what could have been. But instead these newly released songs reveal a new, more empathetic and human side of a band, one that would be rejected completely on their next album “Kid A.”