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Saturday, January 27, 2018

Radiohead: Kid A


1) Everything In Its Right Place; 2) Kid A; 3) The National Anthem; 4) How To Disappear Completely (And Never Be Found Again); 5) Treefingers; 6) Optimistic; 7) In Limbo; 8) Idioteque; 9) Morning Bell; 10) Motion Picture Soundtrack.

General verdict: An innovative, challenging, yet ultimately unengaging experience. Indifferent respect.

History repeating itself works just as fine for music as it does for... history. With OK Computer gaining the critical status of a Dark Side Of The Moon for the Nineties and easily making Radiohead the #1 Band That Matters in the whole wide world, they must have found themselves in the same type of crisis as Floyd in 1974: exhausted from all the hype, yet unavoidably obliged to eventually come up with something comparable in ambition, execution, and impact. Just as The Bends was a major creative leap over Pablo Honey, and the scope and pretense of OK Computer, in its turn, put The Bends to shame, so the next album had to represent yet another step forward. But in the year 2000, it was not at all clear whether a huge step forward within the confines of rock music (or traditional genres of music as a whole) was even possible, let alone whether Radiohead had enough genius left to make it. 

So, sometime around 1998-99, rumors began to circulate that Thom Yorke pretty much «had it» with rock music, particularly guitar-based rock music, and that even the concept of a clearly defined «melody» as such began to feel alien to him — a clear sign that he was looking for an answer well beyond the expectable and predictable, and that the band's (or at least, Yorke's personal) spirit of adventure had not yet run its course. During those years, he claims to have mostly listened to electronic artists like Autechre and Aphex Twin, sensing that it was them, with their totally different, but no less meaningful, sounds, rather than anybody else, who truly represented the music of tomorrow; and indeed, Radiohead's movement into the direction of computer software and IDM now seems an inevitable part of their destiny, the only thing they could do at the time in order to avoid the demon of stagnation. Not that they were alone in this enterprise or anything: on the whole, the revival of «raw» guitar rock, spurred on by the grunge movement at the beginning of the decade, was already winding down, and in the 2000s, only the laziest (or the most religiously conscious) bands would resist the temptation of merging their guitar playing with some computer-generated sound loops. Arguably, though, it is Kid A, and nothing else, that would become the symbolic flagship of the whole movement.

The album took almost a year and a half to complete (almost twice as much as OK Computer), as the band members never set themselves a specific deadline and had quite a few disagreements over particular ideas and directions, as well as a specific problem related to Yorke's temporary writer's block; nevertheless, not only did the band not break up (which was a real threat at some time), but they ended up delivering, escaping the creative breakdown trap of such infamously exploded projects as Smile and Lifehouse. Nobody jumped ship in the interim; even Nigel Godrich returned to the producer's seat, although now he had to guide the band through a com­pletely different type of journey. Electronic embellishments, however, were not the only new element in the reformed sound: for one thing, there is also a huge brass section on board (mostly for the purposes of adding an extra dimension to ʽThe National Anthemʼ), and then there is the Orchestra Of St. John's, providing strings for ʽHow To Disappear Completelyʼ. Talk about the benefits of a bigger budget...
Usually, the farther away we move from the peak years of a musical era, the more difficult it becomes to find an artist who can consistently up the antes and reinvent, redefine, or at least shake himself up, intensely peering with one eye into the deep past and another in the distant future. The rut eventually found Radiohead like it finds everybody, but Kid A was like that last extra challenge before you are welcomed to the rank of the true Immortals: «to achieve immortality, you must defeat yourself». In terms of general mood and atmosphere, Kid A is easily perceived as a sequel to OK Computer, but it still steps all the way out of that album's boundaries, and not just by adding electronic patterns: ʽNational Anthemʼ shows a strong avantgarde jazz influence, and Yorke's singing style on this album moves ever more in the direction of free-form revolutionaries like Tim Buckley (that is not to say he sounds much like Tim Buckley, which would not have been revolutionary at all; it is more a matter of allowing himself the same ample freedom with vocal modulations that Buckley had wrestled for himself decades ago). In a way, this is the first Radiohead album where lyrics almost do not matter (unless you want to spend useless hours trying to decode the Transcendental Meaning of lines like "there are two colours in my head / what is that you tried to say?" or "we've got heads on sticks, you've got ventriloquists"); what matters is the timbre and oscillation pattern of the vocalist, whose primary task is to contribute to the atmosphere.

Although Kid A has been called a «difficult album», many times over, I do not find it any more «difficult» than its primary electronic or avantgarde influences. For sure, its songs are more ambiguous than anything Radiohead had ever done before, but essentially it explores the exact same themes — loneliness, alienation, fear, paranoia, disillusionment, all the standard ingredients that Radiohead kept on their shelves since 1993; heck, if it didn't, it probably would not have caught on so easily with the general public. And for all its «progress», it has a number of very firm links with Radiohead's past that greatly assisted the public with catching on. ʽThe National Anthemʼ, for instance, despite all the infamous «jazz cacophony» created by a swirl of brass overdubs, rides atop a firm, solid, decisive bass groove that sounds not unlike the main riff of ʽParanoid Androidʼ. ʽOptimisticʼ is a clearly guitar-based pop-rocker that would have easily fit on The Bends (just throw in a bit of distortion, and you're done); ʽIn Limboʼ has the guitars-and-keyboards-floating-in-space aura of ʽSubterranean Homesick Alienʼ; and even if ʽMorning Bellʼ is completely dependent on a primarily electronic keyboard melody, it still sounds like one of Radiohead's traditionally soulful pleas to the Great God of Mercy. All the more respectable are the many ways in which these traditional elements interact with the novelty stuff — ranging from pure instrumental ambience (ʽTreefingersʼ) to psychedelic orchestral arrangements (ʽHow To Disappear Completelyʼ). In short, it is a dang clever album, regardless of how the listener might feel about it on the proverbial gut level.

Which inevitably brings us to how this one particular listener feels about it on the proverbial gut level. Or, rather, how he does not feel about it — because, in all honesty, I am so coarse that I do not genuinely feel anything about it, and have never been able to (for about 10 years since I first heard it, to make the perspective more clear). From what I have witnessed, there are usually two perspectives on Kid A: the 5-star and the 1-star perspective — one of those records where you either get it or you don't, and if you don't, there is no way to help you. My own ears are big fans of the 1-star perspective, suggesting that, for all of its innovative/creative thoroughness, Kid A is easily the most boring and inefficient «great» album ever released, and the fact that it has been symbolically called the greatest album of the 2000s by so many people can only reinforce the bitter irony encased in the equally symbolic question of «where have all the good times gone».

One does not really need to advance far beyond the first track of Kid A to form a general perspective on the whole thing. There are people out there who find ʽEverything In Its Right Placeʼ the perfect epitome of all the bleakness and desperation that accompanies Radiohead wherever they go. The deep keyboard tone, the repetitiveness, the somnambulant-depressive voice, the whispery overdubs, the electronic crescendos, all working towards that goal...

...alas, divisive opinion coming up: all I manage to hear is a repetitive, deeply annoying whine that hints at bleakness and desperation, but never goes for the real thing — working at best on a symbolic level, as if Yorke and his pals were staging a traditional Chinese theater play (which, I must stress, they are not). I mean, I get Michael Stipe, I get Lou Reed, I get Robert Smith, I get Portishead, I even get Radiohead themselves, of the ʽLuckyʼ variety, but this sounds tedious and annoying, and Yorke's mantra-like vocalizing eventually becomes a buzzing fly effect that simply shots my nerves (it gets even worse on ʽIdiotequeʼ, though). Mostly, though, it is a matter of that keyboard melody  — I have no idea whatsoever how it could cause even the slightest emotional ripple in anybody. Apparently, it does, leaving me stumped. At best, I can visualize somebody holding his breath for about four minutes and taking a relaxed swim right under the water's sur­face — a tad psychedelic, but hardly a cathartic experience.

Over the years, I have sincerely and desperately tried to find even one song on this album that would properly connect on an emotional level. The closest I ever got was with ʽOptimisticʼ, since, as I already said, it is the only song here clearly reminiscent of «old school» Radiohead, when they were content with writing real instrumental and vocal melodies, and it has got some really lovely vocal harmonies that offer a brief respite from the usual Thom Yorke caterwauling. It is still not a masterpiece, though, and it hardly compensates for the complete hollowness of everything else, and I literally mean everything. At best, they just sound derivative (ʽTreefingersʼ, an experiment in turning your guitar into an ambient organ, is listenable but hardly improves upon anything Brian Eno had done — heck, anything Adrian Belew had done), and at worst you get ʽIdiotequeʼ, easily the most irritating song in Radiohead's entire catalog — at least because of my urgent need to physically strangle Mr. Yorke for his, perhaps somewhat authentic, but irre­deemingly ugly attempt at impersonating a crazy person announcing the coming of the ice age.

That said, if this was all just a matter of an annoying vocalist... but I do not think Kid A would have worked for me as a purely instrumental album, either. Again, for all of its experimentation, I have no idea what it is exactly that should place it in the collective critical mind above all those 1990s masterpieces by the likes of Portishead or Björk. Most of the melodies here revel in minimalism while forgetting that good minimalism has to strive to place emotionally meaningful content into minimalistic note sequences — certainly not something the presence of which I could ever suspect in the title track. Test situation: take the minimalistic electronic keyboard melody of ʽEverything...ʼ or ʽMorning Bellʼ, compare it with, say, the similarly minimalistic (even similarly-toned) electronic keyboard of Portishead's ʽRoadsʼ, then tell me the difference. It is my firm conviction that the boys were so deeply entrenched in intellectual experimentalism here that they completely forsook substance for style.

It goes without saying that this whole judgement is a very subjective matter, and that Kid A may produce very different effects on people depending on their age, social and cultural background, and, perhaps most importantly, individual listening experiences. But in my personal case, changes in age and listening experience have had no effect whatsoever: from the beginning, I was certain that with Kid A, Radiohead completed the process of «losing the way» which was surreptitiously initiated with the still great OK Computer, and time, life, and supernatural spirits did nothing to clear me of that conviction, even though God knows I have tried groping for the album's hidden charm every now and then. No dice.

It also goes without saying that this review should not be taken too «prohibitively». Regardless of what this author has to say, Kid A has firmly gone down in musical history as an «Important Album», and any music lover / connoisseur needs to hear it at least once, preferably twice or more even if the initial reaction is negative. I am not quite sure of how influential it has been on the subsequent evolution of music (except, naturally, on Radiohead's own future career), but it has certainly been influential on the minds of music theorists and rock critics... and, well, it sold quite a bit, too. (And I am not even mentioning the details of the «leaking on Napster» story, which may have been the most influential aspect of the record, indeed).

Yet, as of now, I also strongly suspect that the success of Kid A is largely due to extra-musical considerations. What would be an objective definition of Kid A? «Most significant rock band in the world circa 1997-99, instead of making a carbon copy of its biggest success or commer­cializing its music for a bigger audience, bravely marches off in an experimental direction with a record that preserves their core values but presents them in a completely new set of musical textures». How could a thing like this not be successful? It simply couldn't. A simple alternative is that Kid A is truly musically brilliant, and it takes a different psychological constitution from mine to see it. But I am very wary of those perceptional bifurcations — being picky-picky, any time I have to choose between «brilliance» and «bullshit», I refuse to trust analytical judgements and place my full trust in intuition. In the case of Björk's Vespertine, for instance, intuition tells me to rationalize that album's nature as artistic genius. In the case of Kid A, intuition demands rationalizing things in the opposite direction. We could write papers and books a-plenty on the symbolic artistic meanings of everything going on here, but attuning your heart to this particular vibe is a different matter altogether.

For that matter, it might be useful to note that, upon release, reviews for Kid A were fairly mixed: Radiohead's newly-improved electronic textures displeased and perturbed quite a few of the critics, even if the band's overall reputation at the time was so high that the album still topped the charts both in the UK and in the US. Eventually, even most of the harsh-hearted critics relented, so today Kid A is generally regarded as an artistic triumph. In agreement with its reputation, the album has been re-released multiple times in various editions, the most comprehensive of which so far is the Special Edition from 2009 (not that it's a must-have or anything: where Special Editions of earlier albums are valuable because the bonus CDs throw on various B-sides and EPs that are otherwise unavailable, the Kid A era yielded no singles or EPs, and so all the bonus tracks there are just various live performances of Kid A material).


  1. Bah! General Verdict in illegible yellow again...

    1. Click on the first word, drag and watch the magic!

  2. There's an interesting point never stated but seemingly submerged in these reviews - when the Beatles' music changed, their themes changed, but Radiohead's stayed the same.

    Anyway, this is a pretty good aphorism: 'any time I have to choose between «brilliance» and «bullshit», I refuse to trust analytical judgements and place my full trust in intuition'

  3. I completely understand where you're coming from, and on my first few listens I was in the same boat. But eventually I hit upon an interpretation of the album that helps me enjoy it immensely- I enjoy it as a cautionary tale about emotional repression. Thom Yorke, or whomever the protagonist is, has undergone some serious trauma, and attempted to shut out all emotion, kind of like Sarah Nixey on "England Made Me", or Beck on "Sea Change" (even if these three albums are extremely different). This is why the album sounds so cold- he's trying not to feel anything. And there's nothing bleaker or more depressing than that. That keyboard melody of "Everything in Its Right Place"? A cold acknowledgement, with no sympathy.
    However, the difference is that it doesn't totally work with this protagonist. His emotions bubble up within anyway, and end up spurting out in unhealthy ways, like the paranoid screaming in "Idioteque", or the psychedelic breakdown near the end of "How to Disappear Completely" (one of the best Radiohead tracks ever, I was grateful you put it in red text this time, I always deeply connect with this one), or the nightmare of "Treefingers" (I've always pictured an astronaut floating away into the void, untethered to anything, and resigned to his fate), or the vortex at the end of "In Limbo", and so on, all the way until he dies at the end of "Motion Picture Soundtrack". Emotional repression is bad, and this is what the dangers of it look like.
    Not that I expect this will change your opinion on this album or anything. That's just the way I like to listen to it.

  4. I agree with most of this - the "avant-garde" aspects of this mainly consist of carrying over various sounds from Warp Records to the world of big-budget rock (in particular the title track is a total Aphex Twin imitation, albeit a skillful one), and many of the songs don't really have any musical content ("Idioteque," "Treefingers" etc.). I do think that about half of the album generally follows the strong songwriting of OK Computer ("Optimistic," "How To Disappear Completely," "Everything In Its Right Place"), so in that sense I am a bit more positive about it.

    Nonetheless, I am also unable to relate to the willful alienation of this album. I always thought the "two colors" bit in the first song was evocative of someone who was fixated on every minute detail of their own emotional state and completely unwilling to attempt any communication with the outside world. In a way, this is evoked brilliantly, but to me it is just plain unpleasant - to be honest, I would not want to communicate with such a person and I think that at some point it's their own responsibility to come out of their shell, so likewise I do not really feel compelled to listen to a whole album of their feelings.

  5. I dig Kid A (and all their records up to Thief).

    I relate with Ross' assessment. Every time I put on Kid A, I hear a post-traumatic record, purposefully detached and exactly why it's depressing at the same time.

    I'll give you Idioteque though. Thom's vocal is really grating at that one.

  6. what the hell? 'Idioteque' is the best Radiohead song, easily! Madness!

    1. Yep! At least best on Kid A, I would agree.

  7. I like Radiohead a whole lot, but I never got the indie intelligentsia claiming this was their masterpiece. I like it well enough, although Treefingers is still maybe my least favorite RH song, but to me Ok Computer, In Rainbows and the Bends are all quite a bit better (I doubt you like the new one George, but I also think it's maybe a little bit better than Kid A)

  8. I think the album is a mess, a melange of ambient, experimental, riff-based, random musings. There's nothing wrong with departing from the conventions of pop songwriting - it had been done before many times, albeit not by such a "big" band. Maybe the defining feature of this album is that it is critic-proof. You can't really criticise it based on conventional criteria like poor melodies or lyrics because neither is relevant here.

    And in answer to the question about "what do you do when you've written a critically acclaimed album of good songs"... write some more!

  9. I do think it may have something to do with "timing." This was essentially DARK SIDE OF THE MOON to everybody I knew in high school. My memories of it run deep. To this day I think it's still their most consistent and elegant mood piece: it plays front to back as a sustained song cycle just like the aforementioned 70s classic. That alone renders it unique from all the other Radiohead records, which are usually more fractured. And also - it was a jolt of experimental bliss coming out of the mainstream at a time when things were rather bleak on that front. It really blew some minds in 2000 - that emotional impact upon nearly an entire generation of "smart" music fans helps explain why its so beloved today.

    1. Yes ! To me and my music loving friends, this album was huge when it came out. I was 20 at the time and it was the first time that I heard a new album that was as bold, audacious and powerful as the 60s and 70s stuff that I listened to. I thought it was the beginning of a new musical revolution. Unfortunately the revolution never happened, and Rock continued to die slowly with the next big trend, the ultra-boring garage rock revival of the early 2000s. Radiohead, however, made even better records the following years, and is still making great stuff (their last album is insane).

  10. To me this is based on Krautrock. An omage to the great German rock - I can imagine them playing somewhere in Berlin early 1970s.
    Mr Only Solitaire - the best music reviewer in the entire World. Like mental Therapy.