What Makes Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” So Perfectly Uncomfortable

Radiohead evolved in leaps and bounds through their first four albums.  So when the third album OK Computer arrived with the lead single “Paranoid Android,” the audience was blown away.  Bends was an excellent album on its own, but this was on an entirely different level.  This was the first album produced by Nigel Godrich, who went on to become their go-to producer from this point on, and there are notable production touches here.  But is that what lifted this album and this song to new heights?  Let’s look at the song as a whole and explore this.

Songwriting

At six and half minutes, the song isn’t gigantic by progressive rock standards, but it definitely goes through an extended journey compared to the rest of Radiohead’s catalog from the era.  What adds to the sprawling feel is the fact that the song is broken up in four different sections, some of which appear to contain its own verse-chorus patterns.

The song starts out with a common-but-still-unsettling harmony of C Dorian, which is close a minor scale but has one note (A natural) that makes it sound unstable.  The long progression has a downward trajectory over all, then transition down to what can be interpreted as G Dorian, ending in an E minor tonality.   This creates the unnerving feel because E natural doesn’t come down far enough to settle on Eb, the note you expected to hear when you got used to the C Dorian originally.  The arching melody on top goes through mostly smooth step-wise motion but ends on E natural, emphasizing this discomfort.  Not only that, the E minor chord has this the Bb addition emphasized, and that tritone interval from E creates unsettling dissonance, making it an awkward shift back up to the beginning in C minor.

The “chorus” of the first section appear to stay in G Dorian but again unsettles you with the double twists of an E major chord and three-bar progression.  The latter is not very noticeable because the vocal hangs over with a long note but it creates a sense that you skipped something you were expecting to hear, because thus far the song had more predictable harmonic rhythm that is divisible by twos and fours.

The second section contains its own verse-chorus or call-and-response structure, starting with this sinister-sounding riff in A minor.  But it’s not a regular A minor, it contains G# (which may be interpreted as A harmonic minor) which jumps up to C, creating an in-your-face nasty sound.

The response to a more traditional sounding C – Ab – Bb progression, but the big twist there is that the whole thing is laid out in 7/8 meter.  Bb only gets one eighth note the first time we hear this section, this time the sense of rushing through is much more obvious.   But then a further twist is that once the band starts pounding the Ab is the one that gets one beat and Bb gets two, still retaining the rushed feel but this feels more pounding as well.

The second section concludes with a big arrival on F, then proceeding to a new long and descending progression starting with C minor.  It’s an awkward transition that reveals the fact that these are sections spliced together, but the awkwardness doesn’t stand out when the whole song has intentional awkwardness built-in.  This slow section features some advanced chord sets:

Cm G/B Gm/Bb A Dm A Dm Dm/C Bb F/A Gm F E A

The progression seems to go through so many tonal centers that it’s hard to say what the key is for the section.  But it’s a finely written progression that suggests many melodic possibilities, and Thom Yorke manages to come up with two distinct melodies here.  The two melodies offer great contrast, with the first being slow and melodic and the second more staccato and motif-driven, both descending along with the main chords to a dramatic and tragic end.

The fourth section is the final pounding of the heavy riffs from the second section, a much-needed bookend to the song.  Without this the song may have felt too sprawling, wandering from section to section which have little in common.

That said, the common thread running throughout is the band’s penchant for dissonance and the rush of skipping beats.  Even though the song is clearly a splice of three different raw material, it hangs together because they all convey a compatible emotional landscape.

Arrangements

The foundation of this song is Thom Yorke’s acoustic guitar, which may not be playing a large role outside of the first section but you can tell that all other members are picking bits and pieces of the main acoustic guitar part to form their own parts.

For example, Johnny Greenwood’s lead guitar has this Bb-A-G line on top of that E minor-variant.  More guitar and keyboard parts come and go, primarily serving to thicken the backdrop without really standing out (though, the high-pitched guitar arpeggio during the “chorus” of first section is quite lovely).

The drums mostly keep the backbeat together and don’t draw attention to itself, so next to the acoustic guitar the bass may be the most critical part.  The first and second sections rely heavily on the driving bass while the drums stay sparse, and Colin Greenwood asserts himself by supporting the acoustic guitar but inserting deviations here and there.  When he drops out in the third section the lack of his presence feels like a gaping hole, creating a dramatic contrast between the loudness of the preceding and following sections.

Performance and Production

If the acoustic guitar is the foundation of the song, then Thom Yorke’s vocal is the star.  Thin but piercing, his pure tenor excels in creating this cold, eerie sound, perfectly matching the oddity and dissonance built-in to the song.  Thom has this ability to sound unrestrained without necessarily belting or forcing his voice forward.  The sustained “What’s that??” line from the section one is a great example of this.

Despite all the electronic production touches, Radiohead has always been known for loose, untidy performances, and this song is no exception.  The band strikes the good balance of being tight but not too tight, and a lot of small variations that exist in all the parts sound off-the-cuff.  Johnny Greenwood’s guitar solo comes across raw and unpredictable.

Finally, Nigel Godrich’s production features harsh distortion and random noises to enhance the nihilistic unsettledness built-in to the song.  Thom Yorke’s vocal is dialed in to cut through the dense mix from somewhere not too close, rather than standing right in front of the band, in-your-face.  This sense of distance is important, because warmth and intimacy would’ve counter-acted the feelings contained in the songwriting.  In my opinion the production simply enhances and aids the song, rather than defines this recording.

Conclusion

You’d think that splicing song snippets in a not-so-perfect manner would create an disjointed experience, but Radiohead actually used that to their advantage by utilizing snippets that each has its own quirks and unsettled-ness to create a focused expression of discomfort and alienation.  In the previous album that band still lived in more conventional rock heroism, but with this song they declared their boredom with it and instead chose a more deconstructive path.  From here they go further and end up taking up terrains that may no longer be identifiable as rock n roll, but at this point in time we get to experience this great in-between place where rock bombast is freshly messed with.  And that messing is evident in the foundation of songwriting here, and the production is simply the most obvious layer that catches our ears.

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