Radiohead - Kid A

by Rob Taylor Rating:8 Release Date:2000-10-02

Mental exhaustion could have led to writer’s block or creative atrophy, but instead resulted in a baffling album by Radiohead, which for most people, including myself, matured into something of a flawed classic. Kid A is the sound of a nervous breakdown, a disconnect from the commercial world and from conventional rock, but by beautiful accident and against its instincts, it was also a catalyst for rock musicians to step outside their comfort zones, and to start paying attention to what was happening in other musical spheres.

Thom Yorke stated at the time that he’d lost interest in melody, and wanted to experiment with rhythm. Guitarist Jonny Greenwood said that the band “had to change everything.” The band was listening to electronic music, especially that released by Warp. Like young and zealous scientists given unfettered opportunity to pursue esoterica of their choosing, Radiohead threw out the rulebook and composed music that was detached, clinical, devoid of song structure, and fuelled by the sort of rhythmic adrenaline that inhabited club culture. The band felt antipathy towards the commercial press, record companies, and fans insistent that they write more songs like “Karma Police” and “Creep.” There was blowback from the album, as we all know, most famously from the British magazine, Select, who sneeringly commented, “What do they want for sounding like Aphex Twin circa 1993, a medal?”

Whatever criticisms might be leveled at Kid A, however; it is churlish and wrong to suggest that it was derivative. It certainly borrowed an aesthetic or two. Take the sharp atonalism at the end of “The National Anthem” for example, with a brass octet bleating portentous noise in the vein of John Coltrane’s Ascension, Coleman’s Free Jazz, or Black Ark’s infamous outer limits jazz. The fuzzy bass line and wonderful syncopations muted its full impact - a minor apology for the ruckus. To me, this was heavenly, but I was already a devotee of Sun Ra and John Coltrane’s later works. To others though, it was anathema, and I guess I can understand that.

I find “Idioteque” to be overwrought due to the tectonic dynamic shifts, the multi-layered instrumentation, and the glitchiness. An abstruse account of climate change and oil wars, which I know only because I read it somewhere, the track was cut down from fifty minutes of loops and samples to four minutes of frenetic dance by Yorke.

I admit, parts of Kid A were oppressive at first; not the mood, so much as the scattershot attack, the piercing sounds, the high-pitched barbs, and the volume shifts. Those feelings prevail to some extent in 2017, although where once I cringed, I now feel vaguely excited and stimulated. What before was mildly painful, like ice flurries needling into your cheekbones, now just brings sharper consciousness and greater musical satisfaction. Some of the instrumentation is really evocative, like the Ondes Martenot for instance, an instrument invented in 1928 which produces a high-pitched wailing sound that’s a little like Mercury Rev’s musical saw, the toy piano at the beginning of “Everything In Its Right Place,” or the pedal organ on the beautiful “Morning Bell.”

“How To Disappear Completely” was a mantra offered by Michael Stipe to Thom Yorke, who embraced it, leading to one of the warmer, reflective moments on the album, followed by “Treefingers,” Radiohead’s Eno moment, which was an ambient song that takes a deep breath.

Kid A is the largely uncontrolled outpouring of creative ideas and emotional catharsis of a group at the edge of their existence as a rock band. It was flawed, but at its best, it was one of the finest experimental rock albums ever made.  

 

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