Album Review: Radiohead – Kid A
I remember when this album was released back in 2000 – and I also remember the reaction of some ‘die-hard’ Radiohead fans I knew at the time. Many, no doubt hoping for a return of the anaesthetised acoustic-guitar pop of their commercial breakthrough The Bends, were disappointed. I even knew one fan who described Kid A as ‘rubbish’ and felt angry and betrayed at having to listen to these tracks when they went to see Radiohead live in 2000. Mind you, what do most fans really know about music?
From the opening bars of throbbing space-age synthesizers and layered, skipping vocal samples on Everything In It’s Right Place, Radiohead make it abundantly clear that, far from abandoning their flirtations with Prog Rock on OK Computer, they’re wholeheartedly embracing them. Gone is Radiohead’s three-guitar line up. Instead we have synths, samples, drum machines, even brass sections. And wow, what awesome results! Yorke’s vocals build to a crescendo on Everything In It’s Right Place. His lyrics ‘I see colours in my head/what is that you tried to say?’ are so flat when written down here but when you listen to the track, they illustrate the depth of musical maturity that Radiohead now possess. Not only are they rock, they are pure techno and dance. There are dense layers of rhythm on Kid A that echo Aphex Twin and other artists from the pioneering Warp Records label. Liberated from ‘conventional’ instruments, Radiohead can finally be anything they want to be.
Title track Kid A marks a return to computerised speech they first used on OK Computer, but there’s a far greater depth of sound now. It all lulls you into a false sense of security, because the sheer impact of Colin Greenwood’s bassline on The National Anthem is mindblowing. Yorke’s vocals are churned through a vocoder but that jaw-dropping bassline gets layered with processed beats and even a chaotic freestyle 9-piece brass section, before crashing down again like a metal waterfall. It all makes for a spectacularly frenzied and bizarre listening experience – but it’s genius. It’s clear that Radiohead are now masters of composition – they can make anything work. Apparently the pounding bass riff was written by Yorke when he was just 16. That makes this number even more phenomenal, imo.
As if to placate the die-hards, How To Disappear Completely turns up with it’s soft acoustic strumming and dreamy atmospherics. But even this seemingly nondescript number is layered with gorgeous riffs, steady percussion and soaring strings. They transform Yorke’s vocals into something majestic, stellar. ‘I’m not here/This isn’t happening’ he insists. Optimistic, with it’s jangly guitars, takes the album into a different dimension, but we’re lured back to the lush atmospheric soundscapes of In Limbo pretty swiftly.
Nothing can quite prepare you for the full glory of Idioteque, though. With it’s stark 70’s techno beat, industrial noises, lyrics of war, greed and conflict – it has all the hallmarks of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. The lyrics themselves are probably the most intriguing Yorke has ever written. ‘Women and children first’ into a ‘bunker’ while Yorke ‘laughs until my head comes off’ conjures up images of genocide. He says there’s an ‘ice age coming’ and ‘We’re not scaremongering/This is really happening’, echoing lyrics to follow on subsequent albums that warn of environmental doom. This is juxtaposed with the rather blase ‘Here I’m allowed/Everything all of the time’, showing that even though mankind is hurtling into an apocalyptic abyss, we’re all victims of our own greed. His words are nasty, unpleasant and quite frankly, horrible to listen to. But even this savagery is beautifully poetic.
Idioteque is driven by a repetitive electronic beat that Johnny Greenwood took from an experimental piece of 70’s computer music, again giving an ironic nod to the original decade of Prog Rock, but adding so much more to it. There’s a musical vision on Kid A that is unashamedly Prog and retro, but it’s so fresh, so new, so alien and so raw. It’s like someone stripped away Floyd’s Dark Side to reveal nothing but throbbing gristle and bone, the insides of its legacy. This is how I feel about Kid A and it’s defining track, Idioteque. Only Radiohead could be so brutal in realising their vision. A calmness returns with Morning Bell, but it’s so numbingly eery that all the samples and sounds merge into one musical melee. It’s another reminder that Kid A is not just an album made up of single tracks, it’s an immersive experience. And as that, it’s a resounding success.
If OK Computer showed Radiohead slowly beginning to embrace the Prog genre, then Kid A marks the point at which they destroy any notion of pop singles and commercial success with fire, guns, bricks, anything they can lay their hands on. Forget videos, singles, forget making money, even – I won’t go into it here, but Kid A was the first album to be streamed on the Internet in it’s entirety before release, an action akin to commercial suicide to music labels at the time – let’s make something visionary, revolutionary. The fans? Yeah they may have lost a few, but no doubt they gained a few hundred thousand. And they made history in the process, several times over. Genius.