October 2000 – album reviews – Radiohead’s ‘Kid A’ (“allowing – or forcibly inducing – change to come through”)

2 Oct
Radiohead: 'Kid A'

Radiohead: ‘Kid A’

Radiohead are history. And they know they are: elevated into a pantheon of great expectations and rock landmarks a mere three albums into their career, and somewhat against their own wishes. Like a latterday Pink Floyd crossed with Nirvana (with the universality of both) they’ve had the rock world at their feet. But they’re also fully aware that, like Miles Davis before them, they need to let go of an expected history before they congeal. Embracing the difficult development of their own history by allowing – or forcibly inducing – change to come through.

So it’s goodbye to Old Radiohead’s upfront army of rock guitars, Thom Yorke’s frenzied in-yer-face angst, and those singles scooping at the soul like the hook in the fish’s mouth. And all the talk of the band making a record that mostly junks standard concepts of guitars, lyrics and pure song in favour of Warp Records-style electronica and muttering left-field oddness has turned out to be true.

‘Kid A’ does indeed have no singles and no singalongs – lovesick, punch-drunk or otherwise. It has a bleary, fractalized, impersonal mountain-scape etched out on computer for a cover; a lyrical agenda which is plainest in its absence. And its diverse pieces are deliberately disassociated from each other. Sometimes chill, sometimes as mechanistic as automata moving in a warehouse; all strung-out and scrambled by filters, Pro-Tools or anti-technique. Trusted “recorder” Nigel Godrich plays an odd mixture of Eno and Albini roles, squeezed alongside the band in the producer’s chair. Sometimes you can hear a band member at work, untweaked. More often you can’t. It’s like a set of glass cases enclosing specimens, puzzling specimens of music pulled up and laid out with a firm “that’s what you’re getting – goodbye” sense to it. Anti-pop, not pleasing anyone’s appetite for a snackable chorus.

And already (to filch another Yorke line) the knives are out. Radiohead are busily having their seams ripped open and their functioning organs speared, teased out and compared scrupulously against charts; a list of names marking off the components of ‘Kid A’ track by track. And, increasingly, marking it down. “Charles Mingus, Autechre, Alice Coltrane, Boards of Canada, Aphex Twin…” goes the chant. “Rip-off. Buy the originals. Who the hell do Radiohead think they are?” And yes, none of ‘Kid A’ is as groundbreaking as any of those recorded texts, which Yorke and co readily cite as influences. There’s no element that a student of improv, post-rock, serious electronica or revolution jazz won’t have heard already. But this also means that one of the world’s biggest rock bands have admitted they’re at least as much learners as teachers. Sounds like cause for celebration to me.

In fact it’s other legendary records – the likes of Robert Wyatt’s ‘Rock Bottom’, Scott Walker’s ‘Tilt’ and Robert Fripp‘s ‘Exposure’ – which ‘Kid A’ is most genuinely akin to. Each of these records strives to meet its ends by a mixture of instinct, cold science flushed hot again with consuming passion, and their own secretive internalised logic. It’s a big step going from ‘OK Computer’ (one of the most explicit and upfront records of the ’90s, in which Thom Yorke was a incandescent clench of ego; stubborn, scarred, and railing against the draining fear and indifference of the adult world we’re trained for) to a twenty-first century record which is as weirdly egoless as this one is. An inarticulate speech of the heart via samplers, hazard and evasion.

Significantly, the most memorable and accessible song on ‘Kid A’ (the tear-blown strum and shivering strings of How To Disappear Completely, echoing both King Crimson‘s desperately vulnerable Waiting Man and Walker’s cryptic Patriot) sees Yorke singing softly and acceptingly of the ultimate relinquishment. Drifting away from himself in Dublin, becoming insubstantial, not as a surrender, but as some kind of transcendence. “I’m not here… this isn’t happening,” he sings, a tired relief (and, almost, a kind of love) suffusing his voice as the quivering violins flutter down, snow-like, obscuring the signposts.

It’s the emotional rightness in ‘Kid A’ that finally pulls it clear of the dissectory attacks people are aiming at it. As if the cry of rage that dominated ‘OK Computer’ is now diffused in a temporarily helpless scatter of images and impulses. As if the echo, coming back, has impacted on a band whose foes and fears are now nested in the fabric of the world, who can no longer respond with a simple song.

The fabulously grotesque artwork (a booklet of nightmare kid’s drawings) that lurks, hidden, in the back of the CD tray, gives a little glance into this world. Stick men boot each other in the balls; small mice squeaking copyright signs wander into the maw of a toothy beast growling a trademark; frightened eyes stare out of threatened houses, and Tony Blair’s PR grin is distorted into empty-eyed predatory lust. A nation of grinning little bears end up on the end of people’s forks or balaclava-clad and tooled up with Kalashnikovs, and a screaming parade of vitriolically surreal words march across the pages like circus handbills. Like the doomsday rhetoric of Godspeed You Black Emperor, it’s almost comical… yet it jolts, like the sound of a chisel stealthily tapping at your wall.

And perhaps ‘Kid A’, rather than being the rebel songbook for this world, is the recovery notes for those as cracked by it as ‘OK Computer’ predicted they would be. There’s a terrible surrender and relief about Everything in Its Right Place, freewheeling along on tranquillised electric piano chording with a slipstream of sliced up, gossamer-keening Yorke vocals tangled in its tail. In which two of the few comprehensible lines are “yesterday I woke up sucking on a lemon – yesterday I woke up soaking,” and “what is that you tried to say?” This is disarrangement, dysfunctionality – not order. Yet Yorke seems to realise that this too has its place in a person’s history; and the sheer beauty of his singing throughout implies there’s hope waiting up beyond the dissolution.

About half of ‘Kid A’ ties in with this dissolve. The clinking music-box-meets-hip-hop narcosis of the title track, a nursery lullaby as rendered by an uptight and drier Massive Attack. Yorke’s bass-warped, filtered and generally fucked voice wavers, croons and ties little musical bows in and out of the pernickety beats, while words about “heads on sticks”, “ventriloquists” and “a little white lie” work their way through the dirty pink clouds. Who blinks first? The gaudily humming electro-disco on Idioteque reveals an empty dancefloor grooving away to itself as catastrophe looms. Yorke, in a slurred keen, is spilling out surreal sub-sense like David Byrne on sodium pentothal (“laugh until my head falls off / I swallow ’til I burst… / Women and children first, and children first…”) but sounds ecstatically happy (“here I’m alive, everything all of the time”), and the last sounds on the track aren’t death-booms but an aviary of feverish guitar loops.

The breakdown’s in the motorik groove of The National Anthem, adhesive thumbstains of bass underpinning a brawling rabble of brass that sound fresh from a vigorous drunken debate at Mingus’ Jazz Workshop or the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Yorke’s voice winds out of the airshaft with a lobotomised “everyone around here… everyone is so clear”: later quavering “everyone has got the fear” as the horns become restive, but affirming “it’s holding on… it’s holding on.”

The other half? Anyone’s guess. The smears and rumbles, the webbing of indistinct voices, the gusts of emotion hurtling up towards invisible targets, all blur the picture. The ghostly tundra ring of Treefingers gives away nothing but a deathly peace. The unravelling trip-hop of In Limbo, full of unhitched folk guitar and stutters of echoed organ, is lost somewhere in the subconscious: grumbling “you’re living in a fantasy world” while itself threatened by nightmares of loss and disappearance (“I’m on your side, / nowhere to hide, / trapdoors that open, / I spiral down”), and finally swirling away in a rush of killing reverb as if down an enormous storm drain.

There are a few dud or ill-fitting moments while Radiohead grope in the fog. Morning Bell, for one, where they knock out a scratchy, swamping, insect-buzzing song which sounds like nothing so much as Echo & The Bunnymen shaking with the D.T.s. Or the tribal tom booms, wiry laceration of rhythm guitars and guilt-ridden lyric on Optimistic, harkening back too much to ‘The Bends’ (or the out-of-focus U2 of ‘The Unforgettable Fire’). But the starved boniness renders these hauntingly hollow-eyed stuff, compared to the previous fire. “If you try the best you can / the best you can is good enough,” sings Yorke, with a scratched, dented demeanour belying his words.

The final act is Motion Picture Soundtrack, journeying on an exultant wheeze of harmonium, celestially riffling harps and gusting bass wind as Thom Yorke settles back into love as if he’s settling back into a wrecked old armchair. And it’s love among the trashed – “red wine and sleeping pills / help me get back to your arms. / Cheap sex and sad films / Help me get where I belong.” Querulous (as he protests “Stop sending letters, / letters always get burned. / It’s not like the movies,”), but there’s happy-sad commitment here as he murmurs “I think you’re crazy, maybe… / I will see you in the next life.” Then one last delayed pink gush of electrophonic orchestration, and out.

But it’s in its totality that ‘Kid A’ sinks into your mind. There’s no way it could ever be counted as a flawless record – in fact, it revels in its flagrant imperfection with such a fierce joy (and one born of abstract willpower) that it’s hard to condemn it for that. But it’s a vitally important record for Radiohead; and a rewarding one for the listener.

The peculiar triumph of ‘Kid A’ is the way that it transcends both its own wanton abstractions and Radiohead’s past explicitness to resonate beyond each of them, in the way that an impact on a random strand can shake the whole web. To hear it is to be haunted by the emotional husks of messages long lost and made irrelevant, or by the impressions left by intentions deflected and displaced into half-formed actions and events. To have your mind rippled by the last exhausted breeze from a shockwave far, far away. To be moved by the vibration of history – Radiohead’s history, at any rate – as it passes.

Radiohead: ‘Kid A’
Parlophone, CDKIDA 1 (72435 2959020)/7243 5 27753 4 7 (72435 27753 47)/LPKIDA 1 (724352 959013)
CD/cassette/10-inch double vinyl album
2nd October 2000
Get it from: (2020 update) buy/download from W.A.S.T.E. Store, Google Play or Amazon Music; stream via Soundcloud, Deezer, YouTube, Apple Music or Spotify
Radiohead online:
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