AT times, it seems like modern technology is doing everything in its power to crush your soul to bits. Your car's electronic braking system short-circuits on a rainy bridge. The closest ATM, when it works, charges 50 cents for every dollar you take out. Your favorite radio station switches to an "All Chemical Brothers, All The Time" format. Your kid's homework? Sorry: the ISDN router ate it.
Radiohead feels your pain. But then, pain is all they feel. Arriving on the scene in 1993 with the spectacular woe-is-me single "Creep," the Oxford,
England, boys are students of life's little miseries. But the album that surrounded "Creep," "Pablo Honey," was merely misguided whining, and the 1995 follow-up, "The Bends," while an improvement, was simply more bathetic
navel-gazing. With "OK Computer," however, Radiohead has finally hit its stride, crafting a dense, dizzying album that smartly welds modern ennui to complex, intriguing -- and sometimes genuinely frightening -- pop music. Slashing strings, ominous organ fills, angular guitars and Thom Yorke's strangled vocals emit a caustic, slightly blurred feel, making it one of the most ambitious and captivatingly bleak records to come out of England since Public Image Ltd.'s "Metal Box."
And that's just the opening song, "Airbag." The others curl into traditional musical themes and twist them to the point of unrecognizability. (Listen to the fuzzed-out blues of "Electioneering," the arch, panicky prog-rock of
"Paranoid Android" or the ballads "Let Down" and "No Surprises," which turn the standard-issue love song into something more sinister.) Throughout, Yorke is picking at the scabs of modernity -- chemical poisoning, overwhelming transit systems, the myth of peaceful suburbia, car wrecks, a girl with a "Hitler hairdo" -- patiently stretching or whispering his vocals instead of forcing them into a "Creep"-ily mawkish croon.
But the most telling, and disturbing, moment is on "Fitter, Happier," where a computerized voice spits out a list of self-help mantras ("regular
exercise ... a safer car ... no longer empty and frantic") until it cracks and tells us that modern life is really about being "a pig in a cage on
antibiotics." Not exactly upbeat, but if you think that pop music could stand to use less varnish and more frayed nerves, you may find this to be one of the best records of year. Until, of course, your CD player malfunctions.