Radiohead – Kid A

Well it’s been an emotional day for everyone, hasn’t it? I think we all ought to relax and take a load off with some good ol’ fashioned Radiohead. Today, we see how the pressures of being rich and famous and depressed all culminate into some extraordinary blippy music:

Behold the unscalable peaks of JPEG mountains!

To really understand how Radiohead went from OK Computer to this, unless you’re just that good at dissecting artistic changes, is to see their film Meeting People Is Easy: A Film About Radiohead. That movie is entirely about how being famous sucks and being Radiohead makes it even worse. Between pretentious, blurry shots of whatever, the movie shows the band sulking, playing the same songs at every show, getting made fun of by club bouncers, and sulking some more. The point they seemed to be shooting for, however, is that OK Computer and the stress involved in its monstrous success and subsequent world tour made the delicate psychic defenses of our favorite depressios crumble like a big crumbly thing.

Thus, upon returning to the studio and picking up their guitars to churn out another mind-blowing, rocked-out, and massively appealing album, they suddenly got flash-backs to how terrible it is making albums that everyone loves and decided to throw away their guitars and start playing with lap-tops. This album is the result of that, and this is actually the exact point in which I started becoming a fan of Radiohead, so I was there for all this nonsense.

Before the album was released, there were many ways that the band decided to let everyone hear it before buying it, possibly to avert the sense of “what the hell is this” that would inevitably arise when the wide-eyed innocent young alternative rockers of the day would pick up the album and find out that the guitars had been replaced with bleeps and blips. My favorite method they used to let people pre-listen to their album (before the days of Myspace and rampant, habitual music thievery) was to play the entire thing, back to front, on MTV2, against the footage of a turntable, and some blurry figures in the background.

Ah, MTV2. Remember when it used to play music videos since MTV proper had decided to become on perpetual reality special about special needs teenagers? Indeed, some people my age who haven’t smoked it all out of their memory just might remember how MTV proper used to play music videos, but those times are long behind us.

Anyway, I was well prepared for what had happened to Radiohead because I saw the film, pre-heard the album, watched the little “not really a video” 10 second clips that they splattered all over MTV2, convinced myself that the band really was trying to be low-key instead of just promoting themselves in a more clever way, and was ready, cash-in-hand when the CD came into the shops.

Now, this is the part of the story where I would pull up the curtain, blow away the smoke screen, and reveal to you that I actually think Kid A is utterly bad, but it’s not true. Kid A is brilliant, excessively so, what that band did with a few lap-tops, some tricky effects, and one very confused horn ensemble will forever stick out in my mind as one of the very best abstract musical adventures in any of the decades I have been alive in.

First you’ve got Everything In Its Right Place, which introduces an electric piano sound, provided (I believe) by Thom Yorke, who also introduces us to a whole different style of singing. See, up until this point (and since I’m working these album writeups in reverse chronological order, I will have to tell you more about later) Thom Yorke had one of the most passionate, over-the-top British singing voices that little island had to offer. His high tenor notes and wonderfully smooth falsetto was the stuff of legends. Of course, he still has this voice, but in the majority of Kid A, it’s pushed back and mostly falsetto or a light tenor. Yes, Kid A is the first real Radiohead album that introduces the idea that Thom Yorke sounds just as good, if not better, when he’s singing low-key and softly.

So what better way to drive this point home than to nearly eliminate his singing for the next track? Yes, the actual title track of the album is an electronically filtered singing voice set against more ultra-warm e-piano, and a really interesting fluttery beat from Phil, one of the more eccentric drummers in the biz.

This is followed closely by one of the only “rockin'” tracks on the album, a song not driven by guitars like the previous hits, but by a bass-line, a simple, major-to-minor bass-line that is now instantly recognizable. The song is “The National Anthem”, and it’s by far one of my favorite Radiohead songs. The other feature of this song (unless you’re the kind who even cares what an Ondes Martenot is) is the horn section, arranged by Jonny Greenwood, master arranger of nonsense. The crazy thing, despite the melange of dissonant notes, the horn ensemble of this song’s end will stay with you, possibly for all eternity.

Then we have the really echoey “How To Disappear Completely”, which is explored a little in the movie because it’s depressing. That is followed up a sort of useless “instrumental” (it’s just guitar feed-back that has been looped through a computer, nothing more to see here folks), and then the first song to contain guitar: “Optimistic”.

From “Optimistic”, with its wonderful little guitar scale that Jonny plays during the chorus, the band keeps the guitars strapped on, but turns the cohesive knob almost all the way down for “In Limbo”. I still can’t put into human words what is going on with “In Limbo”, but it makes more sense than anything from when The Rolling Stones went drug-crazy and did an album, so take that how you wish.

Next is “Idioteque”, a title that proves the band still has a sense of humor, albeit one very shrouded by the pretentious air of… really pretentious things… about them (it’s 4 in the morning, I can’t be expected to be clever at this hour). The song itself is a cracker of a song, kind of a Radiohead-flavored dance groove that gives Thom an excuse to do some really hyperactive stage movements while crooning the surprisingly difficult song.

Next we have “Morning Bell”, which has a tricky beat that I think is 5/8 or something, I can’t remember and I’m not that good with time signatures. Either way, it’s a stressful count, and the song itself is a disturbing piece of work, but unlike its Amnesiac counterpart, this one is actually really catchy and good. The song is worth it just for the screaming weird guitar at the end of the song, but I’m just the type of person who would listen to a song just for a certain 10 second increment.

Finally, we have “Motion Picture Soundtrack”, which is secretly one of my favorite Radiohead songs ever as well. It starts with a very hollow sounding organ (perhaps a Hammond?) and is later assisted not only with the booming bass pedals, but also with a harp, of all things. The song is a farewell song that has to do with Heaven and cheap sex and something or other. It’s a fantastic way to end an album, which is why I scratch my head wondering why they included a cheap bonus track of noise as a secret track, that really derails things when you’re trying to sleep to this album (which I have many times).

So that’s Kid A, a rip-snortin’ good time from the good ol’ boys at Radiohead. Ya’ll come back real soon now, y’hear?

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2 Responses

  1. Easily my favorite album ever. And the best place to listen to it is driving in a rural area on a really cold winter night, it is utterly perfect. Since it rarely left my car’s CD player, I heard it in that context many many times.

  2. My favorite album ever ever.
    And yeah- Motion Picture Soundtrack is amazing. Something about it vaguely reminds me of The Wizard of Oz though. A certain Somewhere Over the Rainbow vibe, I guess.

    The first time my parents heard National Anthem, my mother said it sounded like a nightmare. The horn section playing out of tune was just this massive car crash that they couldn’t tolerate at all.

    And man, you say pretentious a lot.
    Ouch, and now that I look it up, it seems I fit the bill as well.
    “Attempting to impress by affecting greater importance, talent, culture, etc; than actually possessed.”
    Hmm… I can certainly agree to this description for The Mars Volta. They define the “importance” portion of that clause. I’m not sure Radiohead has really had to market themselves as such.
    And I find it almost laughable how the context of the word changes when considering your description of a shot as pretentious. Odd blurry camera angles of nothing. I suppose you could argue that they are making a claim due to that shot’s mere existence in the film as considering it at least somewhat important. That sentence was really botched, but try to understand it if it came out all wrong.
    However, I wonder if random shots of shit delivered in a certain way aren’t the antithesis of pretentious. I suppose it’s in the eye of the beholder, or the context of what the filmmakers are trying to make it out to be.
    I don’t know. It just seems there’s this weird double standard with attempting something for no meaning at all, or sometimes in the sake of being humble, or Just ’cause that allows it to get tangled up with some onlooker’s irritable perspective and get labeled such a dirty word.
    Really, you could say they’re all cunts and people’d just kind of shrug it off, but make a more undefinable and slightly more subtle statement and, well…
    Sorry. This became more about the word and my personal fear of being labeled it unjustly than it was about your review, which I sincerely enjoyed and learned a bit from.

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