I never got into Radiohead when they first got big. I had heard songs like “Creep” and “Karma Police” – which, by the way, I wouldn’t even put in their top ten having deeply explored their catalog – but they didn’t do it for me enough to give Kid A or OK Computer more than a cursory look. More than anything else I think my teenage self looked for overwrought emotion, and those albums just didn’t give me the catharsis my angst-ridden 13 year old self was looking for.
Now, when I look back on it more than ten years later, I realize more and more than it wasn’t right for me then because I just didn’t get it: though the album explores themes of insanity, death, and isolation (among many others), angst is an entirely inappropriate word for what Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood went for. It’s also an album that requires more than a cursory comfort and experience level with rock. You have to be ready to graduate into OK Computer – if you try too early, it won’t make any sense.
I decided to give the Radiohead catalog another go a couple years ago and “Subterranean Homesick Alien” was the song that finally convinced me to dive in. It’s an expansive, multilayered, genre-bending mindfuck that gave me a new experience each time I first listened to it: when I read the lyrics, when I focused on the guitar, the keyboards, the sweeping bass build, the orchestration, the similarities to psychedelic 60′s jazz. Yorke and Greenwood themselves acknowledged that their arrangement, particularly the incorporation of keyboards, was an effort to “emulate the atmosphere of Bitches Brew.” Most of all I love the bass-driven cascade on “Uptight…” when the band builds that sense of yearning to a frenzied, beautiful climax.
And though it wasn’t appropriate for me, naive and uncultured as I was in my teenage years, the song’s narrative does capture that deep sense of longing that, as we all have felt, first takes hold in our second decade. Yorke expresses the story, in which a lonely narrator describes how he longs to be abducted by aliens, naturally and effortlessly:
I wish that they’d swoop down in a country lane
Late at night when I’m driving
Take me on board their beautiful ship
Show me the world as I’d love to see it
I’d tell all my friends
But they’d never believe
They’d think that I’d finally lost it completely
I’d show them the stars
And the meaning of life
They’d shut me away
But I’d be all right
To me it is still probably my favorite Radiohead song – there are a few others that demonstrate Jonny Greenwood’s orchestral guitar mastery and Yorke’s lyrical direction, but only one or two others that are as truly sublime as this one.
If I had a more developed musical palette when I was in my mid teens, OK Computer might have been my “first” – my first introduction to that fourth dimension rock music expresses when it’s at its very best. I might have also appreciated it then for its musical-historical context, too – that it was not only a breakthrough LP for Radiohead, but a revolutionary album for rock music in general, too. As it is, I’m grateful that I’m still discovering new things about it now. I still play it when I’m hanging out with friends, all of whom came of age at the same time as I did, and there’s still that “Oh, man” reaction – not one, I believe, of exasperation, but one of “Wow, this brings it all back.”
Subterranean Homesick Alien by Radiohead