I was all excited to boldly declare that this song is the highest-ranked song from the 1990s on my list, but that isn’t true, there are more of them. But I would argue that this is the highest-ranked *90s song* on the list in that it’s really very 90s, but that’s more conceptual than quantitative and therefore subject to argument. So that didn’t work out. I was also thinking that Radiohead might be the second-most influential band from my lifetime and I’d boldly state that but then I remembered that the Ramones also existed in my lifetime, so it’s at best the third-most influential (behind the Ramones and Nirvana). Now I feel all this unforced pressure to come up with something bold to say about “Let Down,” OK Computer and/or Radiohead to make my #12 pick interesting and the best I can do is this: OK Computer is the best album of the 90s. I guess that’s a little bold.
OK Computer was also a watershed for the band itself. I was introduced to Radiohead like a lot of people by their 1992/1993 single, “Creep,” which I learned today was initially released in 1992 and I guess it didn’t take as well as They expected, so They rereleased it?! And it did do better? I don’t understand this at all, but it’s what the internet tells me. “Creep” appears on Radiohead’s album Pablo Honey which is nobody’s favorite album* and no other singles made much of a splash from it. This seems like the ideal formula for a one-hit wonder, but instead Radiohead went on to be one of earth’s biggest and most respected rock n’ roll outfits. I love talking about this because it’s so weird!
*Actually this is a total lie because it still is or was for a long time Pete’s favorite album for some crazy reason.
Then, in 1995, they released The Bends, which includes a handful of less impressive singles and “Fake Plastic Trees,” a near miss of my top-100. On another day it probably would have made it. Oh doctor, do I love “Fake Plastic Trees.” I share “Fake Plastic Trees”* with BFF/high school bestie and all around top-three best people in the world, Alison Kam. I love this because it’s one of those things where as a child-free adult, I secure my immortality through creative output and influence on others. One day, I sat Alison down and explained to her exactly why “Fake Plastic Trees” was so important and why she should pay attention and I could see in her eyes the moment it clicked and the world fell into place for her. And then I floated out her bedroom window because we were witches and my work was done. Years later, I completed the same procedures with Pete, using all the same charts and graphs, pulling out all the same lyrics and I saw his eyes change in the same way, he murmured “oh good lord” and once again, I floated out the window. This was in fact, my measure of a Good Person in my later teens. I tried to explain the goodness of this song to a person I was sort-of-but-not-really romantically involved with and he did not get it. That discussion kind of ended something that never really happened--if you’re a late teen and you can’t understand why “Fake Plastic Trees” shook me to my core, you’re not worth my time. I mentioned in my post about “Idioteque” that the better version of “Fake Plastic Trees” is the acoustic version that appears on the original soundtrack album for the 1995 major motion picture Clueless, but both are very good.
*We also share Paul Rudd.
Then came OK Computer, just two years after the Bends, but seems far more contemporary than the first two. This is in part because of personal life course events. I graduated high school that June and Pete moved to town, I got a new car, was gearing up to enter college. Pete immortalized this delineation. He used to peel that CD spine label off all CDs he bought while out with me in my car and stick it to his side of the dashboard, all in a neat row before time took its toll and they started peeling away. OK Computer* was one of the iconic labels that stuck there until I got rid of the car senior year. It’s burned on my memory.
*I can’t begin to imagine how this started, but we had an in-joke where we’d be in the car and Pete would press the stickers he put on the dashboard and read what they say in a low, gravelly voice and I would laugh. This happened so frequently, it’s hard for me to even think the words “OK Computer” without hearing Pete using that voice in my head.
Anyway, OK Computer’s lead single was allegedly “Paranoid Android,” the release of which I have ZERO memory. I’m plenty familiar with it from the album but cannot recall it being played on the radio. I’m not doubting this, because as I indicated, I was pretty busy in May of 1997, so what I recall as being my OK Computer introduction is “Karma Police,” which was released in August when things settled down for me. “Paranoid Android,” however, is a very ballsy choice for lead single and right on message for OK Computer. It’s a six-and-a-half minute epic, which is SO long for the middle/late 1990s, at which time we were coming off of alternative radio play dominated by grunge and to a lesser extent pop-punk hits that were more often just 2-3 minutes long. “Karma Police,” though more emblematic of the album’s impact in my mind, I think is just kind of average for this album despite the outstanding vocal performance. It pales in comparison to “No Surprises,” released the following January and is really and truly the consensus prized pig from OK Computer. Rightfully so, it’s a close second-favorite of mine on the album. Impossibly sad and sweet, it’s both melodramatic and relatable. It’s a lullaby about suicide. It’s just beautiful. There’s a live performance of it released shortly after the single’s release in which I swear you can see tears on guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s face as he’s singing backups towards the end. I’m not sure it isn’t sweat, but my heart tells me it isn’t.
I admit “Let Down” is a dark horse, a song on a classic album not a lot of people see as a stand out. I remember when this song struck me. It was YEARS and years after its release. I was visiting my aunt in the mid-2000s and had severe insomnia. To combat this, or for lack of anything else to do alone in a dark guest room without a TV (laptop or internet-capable phone to keep me company), I was listening to a lot of OK Computer on my iPod. For some reason, “Let Down” made perfect sense in the context of the confluence of these factors. It’s got a lullaby aesthetic to it coming from the gentle lead guitar work, which it shares with “No Surprises,” but has a higher tempo and *almost* swings. Just a little. Which makes perfect sense because disappointment is a slightly more upbeat topic than suicide. The appeal of the vocal performance is really hard for me to describe. In the verses, it's like Yorke is trying to convince you of something. It’s got a persuasive tone to it. The chorus sounds a bit like a traditional folk song, as if it’s inviting you to sing along to. I want to compare it to “This Land Is Your Land” but I have no idea why. Also, apropos of nothing, here’s a cover of “Let Down” by Toots and the Maytals from the 2006 reggae themed OK Computer tribute album:
I’ve read a few pieces on the intended meaning of this song, but all of it makes me want to put Thom Yorke on a timeout until he can talk like an adult and not a disaffected teenager. The song is sourced from a specific, weird, drunken thought Thom Yorke had, but I’ve always read it as a song about disappointment (not that it takes a genius--it’s right in the title), which to me is a very weird source of inspiration for a pop song. Disappointment is a very quietly toxic and universal part of the human experience. It’s almost like a meta-emotion because it contains hope, sadness, possibly anger, and betrayal. It’s also an avoidable consequence because if you never have faith in anything, you’ll never be disappointed. That unique feature of disappointment is so widely recognized, it’s a cliche, as is the wisdom that it’s worth risking disappointment because hope feels so good and yet it’s still worthy of discussion because it's so true. A little pearl of wisdom from me to you, two days before Election Day 2020.