Radiohead – Kid A

Kid A

Last year, I had the pleasure of reading Herman Melville’s Moby Dick for my English class. After plowing through 600 pages of what I considered to be relative dribble, I turned to my next task: a lengthy essay on the symbolism contained in the book. On my teacher’s insistence, I took a trip to the library to read some commentary on the book. I was stunned. Book after book after book was devoted to critical commentary about “America’s Greatest Novel,” some of which were longer than the book itself. The books dug deep, often giving several interpretations of a single line that the author deemed important. I couldn’t help but feel that some of the critics were reaching a bit far.
To the dismay of Radiohead (“the world’s greatest band”), their eagerly anticipated new album, Kid A, will inspire similar amounts of critical attention. You may have already read some of this literature: the band has been reviewed in every major publication and is currently on the cover of both Spin and Q. Another online magazine, after giving the album a perfect score, has already devoted a lengthy column to an in-depth analysis of the album. All this for a band that despises their status: Grant Gee’s arty documentary Meeting People is Easy chronicled the band’s nightmarish battle with the press during their OK Computer tour over two years ago.
The band’s paranoid demeanor surrounds their somewhat ironic, yet persistent, struggle to be important. Take a look at their career: Pablo Honey, released in 1993, was their curse. It contained the megahit “Creep,” which has become their very own “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (a half-stupid, half-brilliant smash that a band spends the rest of its career trying to avoid). The rest of the album would have been good enough to make them the decade’s most underrated one-hit wonder (an honor- ? -that no doubt now belongs to the Flaming Lips), had they not gone on to greater things. 1995s brilliant The Bends propelled them into the upper echelon of 90’s rock bands (i.e. Pearl Jam or Blur) with its artful intelligence and brilliant lyrics. Then came OK Computer, the paranoid, brilliant, stunning album that hinted at prog-rock and bought them an obsessive cult of fans. Oh yes, and it also nearly killed the band. That puts Kid A in an awkward place, to say the least.
Kid A opens with an electric keyboard humming gently. What follows is stunning, both as far as the song and the album goes. Cut up fragments of singer Thom Yorke’s voice weave in and out of the song before his emotive, beautiful voice appears. First repeating the song’s title, “Everything in its Right Place,” Yorke then spits non-sequiteurs like they’re lifeblood: “yesterday I woke up sucking on a lemon” is followed by “there are two colors in my head.” The song ends with those same mysterious vocal blips, fading like a radar that just lost track of several aircraft.
The title track follows with a pulsing drum beat, followed by weird ambience and a disguised Yorke mumbling for sonic effect rather than lyrical communication. Colin Greenwood’s propellant bass line opens “The National Anthem,” and it remains a constant as a distant Yorke mutters along with the synth lines. Halfway through a jazzy brass band destroys the song, and as the song ends you realize that Greenwood’s bass is the song’s, and your, heartbeat.
“How to Disappear Completely” is a gorgeous, string-drenched ballad that contains the album’s first guitar. Yorke wearily identifies his alienation (read: mantra) with the song’s chorus: “I’m not here/this isn’t happening.” The strings swell and weep and drone out Yorke midway through before colliding into one another as the song ends. The ambient instrumental “Treefingers” follows, allowing you to catch your breath amidst lush samples of guitar.
“Optimistic,” the album’s only true guitar song follows, and its sure to be a fan favorite. A distinctive yet simple riff continues throughout the song, as Yorke talks about “dinosaurs ruling the earth,” arrogantly states “big fish eat the little ones/not my problem,” repeats “you can try the best you can/the best you can is good enough” without a hint of irony. “In Limbo” comes next and entrances you with a jazzy arrangement and Yorke mumbling “I’m lost at sea” as several instruments chime in behind him. “Idioteque” is almost danceable and is one of the album’s most amazing songs. A thumping, accelerated beat provides a backbone as some sort of keyboard cries over the electronics. Yorke spends the song singing crisis cliches: “women and children first” and “take the money and run,” as well as personal rants: “I’ll laugh until my head comes off/swallow till I burst,” “here I’m alive/everything all of the time.” The aforementioned lines are layered to stunning effect, and the urgency in his voice will leave you in awe. Yorke even takes the time to refute himself, singing “this is really happening” as if he’s had a revelation The striking “Morning Bell” follows with electronic beats, eerie instruments running “round and round” and Yorke pleading, “release me.”
The album’s coda is genuinely perfect. “Motion Picture Soundtrack” is a somber pump-organ lament through Yorke’s grief. Midway through harps and angelic choirs juxtapose Yorke’s alienated, sad voice for one of the prettiest songs in recent memory. The album fades as Yorke sings “I’ll see you in the next life,” as if you weren’t already there with him.
So that’s it. The year’s most anticipated album is an odd collection of 10 songs that will alternately confuse and stun. Three or four listens in, the songs start to emerge out of the experiments, and you’re left with nothing short of an amazing, spectacular record that expands the band’s sound while maintaining the their distinct presence. Radiohead remains one of the few bands in the last several decades that has the intelligence to move their music forward without sacrificing their audience or their image. I’m sure you’re all sick of the cliches concerning the “world’s best band” and their “album of the year.” Unfortunately, all this awestruck critic can do is tell you that they’re all true.