Kid A: Track by Track
The year is 2000. Millennium dawns. Tony Blair perverts the left, Bush will beat Gore and 9/11 lurks beastly in the mist as al-Qaeda meet to plan their assault on the anxious West.
It has been 3 years since the release of Radiohead's magnum opus, OK Computer, hailed as a masterpiece by fans and critics alike and catapulting the band overnight from one-hit-wonder to world fame. Millions of physical copies flocked to old and new fans' shelves and journalists heralded the record as "the next Sgt. Pepper's". But that same press agitated the band on the taxing and claustrophobic promotional tour and they became tired of the sudden fame and tired of each other. Battling tides of anxiety and feeling trapped in the most hectic year of his life, lead singer, Thom Yorke, tells R.E.M member Michael Stipe that he wants to disappear. Stipe gifts him a darkly therapeutic mantra in response: "I'm not here, this isn't happening." Upon returning to the studio with Nigel Godrich, Yorke lays experimental desires on the table, causing already tense atmospheres to reignite in the band. Many members wish to return to their Pablo Honey roots, giving the fans what they want, now that they have the rest of the world on their side. And as the final sandy strands of the century leak quietly away, an album is squeezed from post-tour tension and the overwhelming drive to create. The album is Kid A.
The Year is 2000. You load Kid A into your CD player, remembering those first euphoric riffs of the last album's 'Airbag' and wait as the first silent second ticks by. Then, tumbling synths into a steady techno beat and the scrambled vocals of Yorke. Everything falls into its place and the mirrored earth of Kid A suddenly stretches out towards glacier peaks that hide a scorched sky: a loud, glitchy newness. This is not OK Computer, this isn't even Radiohead. Yorke recalls in interviews that whilst making the album, the label and those close to them would only relay two words to the band, "corporate suicide". Kid A was their chance to certify themselves into Rock & Roll history but the album's opening track was, to many, the electronic end to that dream, washed away by synthetic waves. However, to others, and two decades down the line, it sounds ice fresh and revelling. The synths are warm, glittery, and enveloping, submerging the drum's ritualistic bounce. Yorke's voice has never sounded more organic and at home than over pure computation and he assures us that here we will find everything in its right place.
Expectations thoroughly debased, the title track that follows is unsettling in a completely different sense. In carnival keys, track two lullabies a muffled rhythm to sleep whilst the vocals are distorted beneath a blanket of code. Kid A is intentionally oblique and purposefully evades interpretation but theories float on the internet that the album tells the tale of the world's first clone. If that is the case, then its title track certainly seems to mirror an awakening. Toy-box notes tick like clockwork into a digital sunrise. The clone attempts to stretch beyond its circuitry and warble fragmentary anxieties, but only a few of the haunting lines are audible without a lyric sheet: "we've got heads on sticks... children follow me out of town." If OK Computer was a nervous premonition, steadying for a voyage into disconnectedness, Kid A screams that it is too late. In rude, gasping birth, it casts its alien eyes over a landscape that is too far gone to be reclaimed, grasping tight and mechanical onto sentimental ephemera.
Not until track three does the band finally give listeners something guitar-led, but even then the bass on the wryly titled 'National Anthem' is fuzzy, deep, and incessantly looped. It sounds like it could be Radiohead's angrier take on Massive Attack's 'Angel' until Yorke comes crooning in, and the track will later fall apart anyway into a cacophony of clownish horns, orchestrated by Jonny Greenwood and inspired by the madness of Mingus. Radiohead's comment, perhaps, on television politics, 'National Anthem' is a wide-eyed, manic threat. LED plastered smiles that slip on banana peels and cackle as the country crumbles to 'God Save The Queen' torturously looped on a wailing Ice Cream Van.
Named by Yorke as "the most beautiful thing" that Radiohead has ever done, 'How to Disappear Completely' is hysteria's cold come down. Whether you agree with him or not, the track is undeniably personal, with Michael Stipe's aforementioned mantra creating the chorus. "I'm not here, this isn't happening." The song is famous for its word-painting: the instruments are a mirror. With headphones on and eyes closed, you can imagine floating from the body to a diaphanous calm. But it opens with strings, a single note, tight and high pitched, that fades when Thom sings "I'm not here" as if the note was only the tension of living life too much like a tightening band of stress before the epiphany that none of it was real anyway. A genius comment on Genius describes how Thom's voice is swallowed by the track, his falsetto ingrained within the swelling notes before he is released again in its very final moments. Head above water, cold breaths in lungs: it is a cathartic end to an otherwise unsettling search for relief, reminiscent of that breezy, post-crisis levity. Fittingly, then, 'Treefingers' follows with a serene ambience. Freedom, brief in the extraterrestrial, cathodic web that Radiohead crafts.
'Optimistic' is hardly 'Mr. Blue Sky' but it does offer the catchiest grooves on the album and
most recognizably Radiohead riffs. The skinny singer's declaration that "the best you can is good enough" rings out over layers of gruff and grinding guitars and yet it sounds more strangled and desperate than the words alone would dictate; a forced sense of optimism, but a welcome return to the fan-favoured anthemic grunge. Then, still riding its quieting chords, we slip into 'In Limbo'. Yorke is "lost at sea" and as we hardly notice the tracks change, so, suddenly are we, spiralling softly back to the sterile fantasy of hypnotic rhythms and glitched effects, dragged under wave by wave. It is worth noting just how different of a place we're in now compared to the beginning of the album, Radiohead seems not only to evolve from record to record but within the record itself. The track-list is a creative odyssey.
Returning to the digital landscape we were promised, 'Idioteque' sounded like nothing Radiohead had ever done up to that point. Negative reviews taunted the band for imitating Aphex Twin and certainly, the track lives up to that acid-dipped, IDM label. The beats are scratchy and squeaky, led by a hefty kick that seems to crash from a great height. But who-d-a-thunk that Thom Yorke's vocals can lend a more unique flavour to this type of track? He melancholically describes the next ice age, a nuclear holocaust in which women and children hide in bunkers. Then the sweeping chorus describes ironically how we are allowed "Everything all the time". The track plays out like the dystopian extent of electronic music, blindly dancing away to hedonistic gods whilst the bombs begin to fall.
Like 'In Limbo' arrived on the afterglow of 'Optimistic', 'Morning Bell' drifts in on the rubble of 'Idioteque'. The song was written by Yorke when he moved into a new house. He sensed the presence of a ghost and was inspired to write new material based on his spectral intuition: "clothes are all over the furniture", "The lights are on but nobody's home". Then, in a lightning storm, all of the new material was wiped from his mini-disk and he forgot all he had written, until one plane journey he woke and was able to write 'Morning Bell' exactly as it once was, word for word. It's a very Thom Yorke story, probably full of a lot of cheeky fabrication for the press to swoon over, and it relies on not questioning the existence of a "friendly" ghost in a new house, but the dreamy, surreal nature of the story lends itself to the wave of drum loops that warm bass, soft keys and Thom's high pitched poetry rides in the song. Like something truly alive searching a skeletal structure of what was once abandoned, calling to be "released" from its liminal entrapment.
'Motion Picture Soundtrack' will be either the saddest or most beautiful song you've listened to today, more than likely both. A suicide, induced by red wine and sleeping pills, sets the stage of lamentation on lost love and loneliness: "I think you're crazy, maybe" sings Yorke over lilting organs that caress as they breathe, the sounds of the pedals fully audible. And if that wasn't enough, the track pauses (dies?) to allow transcendence in its wake. It twinkles and glitters to its denouement, mourned by choirs. Starlight falls in waterfalls as you are lifted to navy heavens. Yorke tells us that he will see us "in the next life". He's probably right. Nothing the band does will be the same from this point on. Radiohead is born again.