Classic Music Review: Kid A by Radiohead

radiohead-kid-a

I’m probably the only millennial who can say this: my mother turned me on to Radiohead.

During the latter half of the 90’s, while completely disengaged from that colossal waste of time known as the American High School, I spent most of my time developing my erotic skills. Because of raging hormones and an insatiable desire for physical contact, my personal radio dial during that period was tuned into punk (with a sprinkle of Oasis). Punk gave me the intensity I craved, validated the leather garb I loved to wear and challenged my physicality in the sweet hardship of the mosh pit. I heard some Radiohead during that period—“Fake Plastic Trees,” “High and Dry,” “Karma Police” and “Let Down”—but I didn’t pay much attention to them. In comparison to the no-bullshit, sharp-edged energy of punk, Radiohead seemed mushy and ambiguous.

All that changed during Thanksgiving weekend in the year 2000. I had just started my second year in college and had come home to spend the holiday weekend with my parents in San Francisco. It was the day after Thanksgiving—no, I didn’t have a hangover, so it must have been the day after the day after—and my father had gone off to attend to the needs of one of his tenants. He’d asked me if I wanted to go, but when I found out he was leaving at the ungodly hour of 9 a. m. I took a rain check.

I woke up around eleven, showered, threw a robe on and wandered into the kitchen. My mother was in the dining room doing the finances or something, so I grabbed a cup of coffee, cut a slice of sourdough, spread some butter on it and took my repast in the living room. I remember Bax’s Sonata for Viola and Piano playing on the stereo and I was automatically visualizing the rise and fall of the notes on the score (a habit from years of music training) when my mother came in and took a seat.

“Ah, Bax, if he had only made up his mind what he wanted to be,” my mother sighed.

“I love the viola, though. Everybody forgets about the poor viola,” I responded. We listened to the end, and then my mother said something that fired up all my sleepy neurons.

“I want you to listen to something.”

This was big: my mother rarely asked me to listen to anything. She is much more dogmatic about not forcing her tastes on her daughter, firm in her belief that I should make my own choices with as little parental influence as possible. My father, on the other hand, is a notorious fudger, always trying to imbue his daughter with the same enthusiasm he feels for the music he likes. I have usually resisted my father’s sales pitches, but when my mother spoke, I listened. While I didn’t share all her tastes, I always knew I would learn something from the experience due to her rich understanding of music and her own remarkable performance skills.

“Tante Marguerite was kind enough to send me the vinyl version,” she said as she took the disc out of the sleeve and put it on the turntable. I didn’t bother to pay attention to the name of the album or the artist, knowing my mother would never surprise me with something like The Greatest Hits of Sgt. Barry Sadler.

Soon the room was filled with warm, cushiony sound with fragments of electronic speech. The effect was completely mesmerizing; my mind and soul felt completely enveloped by the music. I knew it was Radiohead once I heard Thom Yorke’s voice, but this was a very different Radiohead than the one with whom I had a passing acquaintance. The only time I broke concentration for a second was when I heard the swooping sound near the beginning of the fourth track—I looked at my mother and she responded to my silent query with a smile and a nod. The only lyrics I heard distinctly were the various mantras, but I resisted shifting to language mode. I just wanted to immerse my heart and soul in the music, and the music accommodated my desire. When the album ended we sat together in silence for several minutes.

“Oh, maman, that was so . . . so . . .”

“Une expérience sublime, n’est ce pas?”

“Yes! Sublime—le mot juste! And that was an Ondes, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, I thought you would appreciate that.”

“Léo Ferré—my first exposure to Baudelaire,” I reminisced. “We should play that before I have to go back.”

My mother nodded, then moved over next to me and put her hand gently on my knee. “You see? There’s a universe of music out there and you have shut it out. I thought this would be a pleasant reminder.”

I felt a brief wave of punk dogma resistance, but then I just looked at her and laughed. “I’d like to listen to it on the headphones now. I know it’s Radiohead—what’s the name of the album?”

Kid A.”

I listened to the album several times that weekend and my appreciation for it increased every time. Once I returned to the dorms, I scanned the buzz about the album on the Internet and was shocked to learn that Kid A had ignited a virtual civil war among Radiohead fans and music critics. The nay-sayers dismissed it as self-indulgent crap, and they seemed really angry about it. The favorable commentary seemed almost apologetic by contrast, a “give it a chance” argument.

“Shit,” I thought, “Maybe all that punk did ruin my ears!”

Then I thought of my mother, a classically trained pianist and flautist who appreciated great music from every genre, a woman who adores music as challenging as Stravinsky and Schoenberg, and as straightforward as John Lee Hooker and Françoise Hardy. What the fuck was going on? Had I gone crazy? Had the world gone crazy?

Then it dawned on me: I didn’t have the history. Kid A was my first full exposure to Radiohead. I didn’t know shit about their previous albums, and I had no idea that OK Computer was considered the greatest album of the 1990’s. I came to Kid A with no expectations whatsoever, while the rest of the music world awaited Kid A with tremendous anticipation. They couldn’t wait to see how Radiohead was going to follow their acknowledged masterpiece.

Curious about this disconnection, I sought out a dorm mate who was a big Radiohead fan and borrowed her copy of OK Computer. The experience was as disappointing as a limp dick. It seemed disorganized, fragmented and ragged. I now understood why all the OK Computer devotees were up in arms about Kid A—Radiohead had taken everyone’s expectations and shattered them into a billion tiny fragments. Later I grew to appreciate OK Computer and a solid majority of the work in Radiohead’s catalogue, but the experience taught me a lesson that is easy to remember and just as easy to forget when you’re caught up in the emotions triggered by music: everything I hear is filtered through my expectations, and expectations alter the listening experience, whether I know it or not.

Kid A is unusual in another respect: I loved it the first time I heard and I’ve loved it every time I’ve played it. That almost never happens. Usually my first reaction to what I’ll later acknowledge as a great album is on the opposite end of the spectrum: anger, disgust, confusion, denial, frustration. The only explanation I can come up with for my enduring passion for Kid A is that it hit me at the right time, and the memory of that moment possesses a certain glow. Not much of an explanation, but that’s all I’ve got.

In researching the history of how Kid A progressed through the culture, I was dismayed to learn that Radiohead fans who claimed they “got it” adopted a superior attitude towards those who didn’t. Oh, for fuck’s sake. This is music, people, not a fucking crossword puzzle! There are no answers at the back of the book! Each of us will have a unique reaction to a piece of music that is just as valid as anyone else’s reaction. Let’s consider one of my all-time favorites: Schubert’s C Major Symphony (No. 9), shorthanded as “The Great.” I don’t have the slightest idea what it means, but I know what it means to me. There are moments when I visualize myself sledding through the Tyrol at a nice, jolly pace; others when I feel the finality of death at my doorstep. Sure, because of my music training I can hear the Beethoven influence, Schubert’s amazing ear for melody and I even know that part of the third movement is a scherzo—but all that is background information that has nothing to do with whether or not I like what I’m hearing.

I run into the same problem when I try to discuss James Joyce’s Ulysses with English majors. They’ll go on and on about the Homeric connection, the mythological analogies and the whole hero/anti-hero dynamic before they lower themselves to ask for my opinion. “Funniest fucking book I’ve ever read,” I reply, delighting in the look of shock on their faces as they struggle to come up with a witty riposte to this unlettered yahoo (I also think it’s the most moving book I’ve ever read, but I like the shock value of the other response).

So, can we get on with it and just enjoy Kid A? What a novel thought!

While most people focus on the music and sound of Kid A, the lyrical methodology is often ignored, in part because Radiohead considered the music inseparable from the lyrics and refused to print them on the liner notes. According to Mr. Yorke, the lyrics are “like pieces in a collage,” a comment that encourages the listener to ignore them. This is unfortunate, as I find the fragments extraordinarily interesting and loaded with meaning. The best analogy to the poetry on Kid A can be found in T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the sixth stanza in particular:

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—
[They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”]
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin—
[They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”]
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

Eliot offers us a peek into Prufrock’s “idiot dialogue”, the constant, often anxious chatter that fills our heads throughout the day. Nearly every waking moment of our lives is filled with this internal dialogue, ranging from reminders-to-self to the hundreds of things we think but never say aloud. Prufrock’s unstated anxieties are rather common: worries about what people will think of him and the fear that, despite his best efforts, they will pick out the flaws in his physical presentation. Most of the lyrics on Kid A are fragments of the idiot dialogue running through Thom Yorke’s head: snatches of friendly advice, common wisdom, artistic interpretations, cliché phrases, sudden anxiety attacks, reactions to the world’s ugliness. What gives these disconnected thoughts meaning is a combination of supportive musical arrangements and the brief breaks in the dialogue where Yorke puts the voice in his head on hold and emerges from the soup of inner dialogue to attempt contact with the real world and the human beings in it.

We experience this dynamic right from the start in the mesmerizing opening number, “Everything in Its Right Place.” The title itself is a folkloric proverb (“a place for everything and everything in its place”) attributed to several different neat freaks in the annals of history, including Benjamin Franklin and the Reverend Charles Augustus Goodrich (“Have a place for every thing, and keep every thing in its proper place.”) Such advice might have been quite useful in the slower pace of the 18th and 19th centuries, when social structures were simpler and time moved at a much slower pace. In a high-speed world of constant motion, ever-shifting social norms and the unceasing bombardment of information from multiple sources, things change faster than our ability to make sense of it all and put them in their proper place. Despite the absurdity of these no-longer timeless proverbs, we hold onto them for dear life in an insane effort to find meaning in the madness.

The song opens with the warm tones of the Fender Rhodes and bass; soon we hear a heavily-filtered voice mumbling incoherently then repeating the disconnected phrase, “Kid A.” It feels like we are entering Thom Yorke’s head, and his quiet repetition of the word “everything” feels like a mind searching for the right phrase. He finds the rest of the fragment—“in its right place”—a discovery emphasized by the chord shift but compromised by the introduction of vocal babble. The babble vanishes for a moment when the next phrase appears—“Yesterday, I woke up sucking a lemon”—repeated four times, with the original chord returning on the final “a lemon.” The source of the fragment is Thom Yorke’s personal experience: during the OK Computer tour, the unhappy, on-the-verge-of a-nervous-breakdown Mr. Yorke wore an expression that looked as if he had indeed snacked on the sour fruit. Next the voice returns to the repetition of “everything,” with gradually increasing intensity. When the chord shifts downward again, the repetition of “in its right place” wavers and sounds less confident. The memory of a Rothko painting enters the mix (“There are two colours in my head”), and Yorke sounds like he’s desperately trying to find meaning in the image while other voices press upon his brain for attention (“What is that you tried to say?”) Now the voice feels more anxious and the music becomes more intense as Yorke tries to put it together . . . but I’m not sure—and it sounds like he’s not sure—if the “you” he is addressing is himself or another person. In either case, communication is lost:

There are two colours in my head
There are two colours in my head
What is that you tried to say?
What was that you tried to say?
Tried to say . . . tried to say . . .
Tried to say . . . tried to say . . .

The build of layered voices and gradually louder instrumentation creates tremendous tension, relieved only in part by the return to quiet on the last repetition of “say.” As the song dissolves into a final repetition of “everything . . .” the words themselves are electronically truncated, interrupted, fragmented. The softness of the music contrasts mightily with the sense of failure to understand and communicate; both the music and the cliché proverbial phrase are now superficially comforting. “Everything in Its Right Place” may not make literal sense, but it makes emotional, intuitive sense—and as a musical composition, it is a tour de force.

The title track (“Kid A” is the name of a setting on a sequencer used on the recording) is allegedly about the first cloned baby. After the scientists cloned Dolly the sheep, the world went mad for a few years speculating on the potential sci-fi horrors of human cloning.

We had so little to worry about prior to 9/11.

The song opens with a whirling sound in the process of deceleration, soon joined by the sound of an approaching train signal. A keyboard that sounds like a cross between a celeste and a toy piano enters the sound field, followed by the foundational bass and beat. The effect is curiously charming, and Thom Yorke’s processed vocal sounds like a baby in a very small incubator, or whatever container a scientist would use to nurture a cloned baby. The extended fade between verses is almost heavenly, and the fade of an artificial baby wail definitely grabs your attention. While the lyrics do little to support the cloning angle or the larger questions of morality, the piece fits nicely into the overall mix, and while I supposed it’s possible that the first cloned baby might be given the impersonal moniker “Kid A,” it’s much more likely that the first functional clone would be more like “Kid Q,” given the human propensity for fucking up.

“The National Anthem” was built on a bass riff Thom Yorke had come up with in his teens, a relatively simple but incredibly compelling motif with an ominous feel. The music rising above the bass prior to the vocal is a marvelous mix of synthesized sound, vocal loops, backwards horn segments and the Ondes Martenot. Thom Yorke’s vocal on the two mini-verses is also processed to produce a childlike effect, something like the voice you might imagine came from the girl who exposed the bullshit in “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” The lyrics reflect that perspective: a child experiencing a crowd singing the national anthem would be very likely to penetrate the façade and say the unthinkable:

Everyone
Everyone around here
Everyone is so near
is holding on.

Everyone
Everyone is so near
Everyone has got the fear
is holding on
is holding on

The final segment in the song features a horn section engaged in ironic cacophony, reflecting the true fears and anxieties of those trying to buck themselves up with the silly lyrics of “God Save the Queen” or “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Jonny Greenwood and Thom Yorke wanted the horns to sound like something Charles Mingus might have written, and I think they came pretty close (though there are a few phrases that cross the line into Ornette Coleman). In terms of application, the piece is very reminiscent of Oasis’ “Fuckin’ in the Bushes,” in that both pieces are perfectly designed to serve as concert openers.

The Ondes combines with acoustic guitar to open the melancholy piece, “How to Disappear Completely.” Also based on Thom Yorke’s painful experience on the OK Computer tour, the swooping sound of the Ondes expresses the disorientation of soul and mind when faced with the unreal. Colin Greenwood’s gorgeous bass run provides a secondary melody consisting of notes of relatively short duration that create a slight tension with the flowing, primary melody with its frequently elongated notes. After allowing himself the luxury of dreaming of a nice float down the Liffey, Thom Yorke approaches his so-called real life as if he’s a man standing at the edge of a cliff staring down at the rocks below, a stance affirmed by the repetition of the key lines, “I’m not here/This isn’t happening.” Those lines were words of advice from R. E. M.’s Michael Stipe on how to deal with the unreal atmosphere of stadium concerts:

Strobe lights and blown speakers
Fireworks and hurricanes

I’m not here
This isn’t happening
I’m not here, I’m not here . . .

Here the idiot dialogue is used as an attempt at generating a sense of self-discipline, but the swooping sound of the Ondes communicates that the footing remains fragile and uncertain. The theme of uncertainty—of self, of other, of the world at large—dominates Kid A, and “How to Disappear Completely” foreshadows the more complex explorations of this theme appearing later on the album.

Radiohead then offers the listening audience a sort of intermission with “Treefingers,” a fascinating electronic composition that has a largely soothing, calming effect. If it seems funny to put such a quiet piece in the middle of a record, it will all make sense once we move to the far more intense second half.

After five tracks dominated by electronica, the appearance of guitar, bass and drums comes as a blessed relief. “Optimistic” is a certified ass-kicker by one of the greatest guitar bands ever, but also a song that reminds us of how much Radiohead sacrificed to achieve the artistic vision of Kid A. Common sense dictates that you continue to play to your strengths, and deciding to limit the presence of guitars seemed as dumb a move as sending your ace pitcher to the bullpen to do mop-up work. As things turned out, this counter-intuitive shift was a stroke of genius, and the scarcity of guitar-dominated songs on Kid A makes you deeply appreciate the one you get.

The mantra for “Optimistic” is another random phrase from the collection of life’s wisdom, this time courtesy of Thom Yorke’s partner, Rachel Owen. Them had expressed his worries that Kid A would turn out to be a piece of shit, and Rachel told him, “You can try the best you can/The best you can is good enough.” For a band that rarely settled for good enough, the mantra is slightly ironic, but good advice for perfectionists who tend to see the flaws in everything. Pushing the ironic meter to the max, “Optimistic” turns out to be one of the most dark and bitter songs on Kid A, a relentless attack on the fish-eat-fish world of piggies big and small:

This one’s optimistic
This one went to market
This one just came out of the swamp
This one dropped a payload
Fodder for the animals
Living on an animal farm

The most vivid imagery combines the human wariness of helping other human beings with a disturbing metaphor of the modern human condition:

I’d really like to help you man
I’d really like to help you man . . .
Nervous messed-up marionette
floating around on a prison ship . . .

Despite its essential pessimism, “Optimistic” is one of my favorite Radiohead songs because of its essential relentlessness. I also love Colin Greenwood’s scale climbing run on the chorus that seems to vanish into the ether.

A funky little jam that ends “Optimistic” dissolves nicely into the guitar introduction for “In Limbo.” Once the band comes in, all hell breaks loose: they all seem to be playing different rhythms at different speeds; the effect is like watching a movie where the sound is out of sync and the film wobbles between regular speed and first-stage fast-forward. Even when the arpeggiated guitar pattern establishes the verse pattern and Thom Yorke begins singing, the sense of musical vertigo remains. Since the song is about existing in limbo, the musical arrangement makes perfect sense and is brilliantly arranged and executed. The uncertain rhythms reinforce the core theme of uncertainty, and the lyrics—again describing the experience of floating, drifting, losing one’s way—make “In Limbo” one of the stronger thematic pieces on the album.

It is also a superb lead-in for the album’s centerpiece, the deeply compelling experience of “Idioteque.” Drawn from Jonny Greenwood’s extensive experimentation with electronic sound and rhythm, the four-note motif, unwavering beat and minimal chord variation form a background similar to a drone song, a form that allows for more melodic play and flexible vocal phrasing. Thom Yorke had proclaimed “I’d completely had it with melody” in describing his songwriting mood leading up to Kid A, but even he couldn’t resist the obvious melodic possibilities when mapping out the song’s chorus.

The lyrics again are derived from Yorke’s internal dialogue, but the internal voice in “Idioteque” is colored with a manic sense of urgency as it tries to grasp the inhumanity of the real world. The lyrics in the first verse form a circular pattern around the central phrase, “Women and children first,” a phrase that has no meaning detached from impending disaster:

Who’s in a bunker?
Who’s in a bunker?
Women and children first
And the children first
And the children

I’ll laugh until my head comes off
I’ll swallow till I burst
Until I burst
Until I

Who’s in a bunker?
Who’s in a bunker?
I have seen too much
I haven’t seen enough
You haven’t seen it

I’ll laugh until my head comes off
Women and children first
And children first
And children

Thom Yorke’s vocal approach is that of a man trying to make sense of senselessness, an almost breathless and slightly detached retelling of the horrors of war. His voice takes flight into falsetto in the chorus, featuring the apparently curious lines, “Here I’m alive/Everything all of the time.” The odd statements reflect the frequent stories of those who lived through the great wars in history and described the period as the most interesting time in their lives. All though the verse and chorus, the main vocal is enhanced by well-placed fragments of supporting harmony and vocal echo, deepening the sense that the experience Yorke is describing is one that will echo in his head for a very long time.

The second passage shifts to the insistent predictions of looming environmental catastrophe, here in the form of a new ice age. Our narrator resists the predictions at first (“Let me hear both sides”) but is then consumed by typical witch-burning madness (“Throw him in the fire”). At this point, the combination of the insistent beat, the drone-riffing melody and the increasing sense of urgency in Thom Yorke’s voice create an all-consuming listening experience, capped by the way his voice breaks on the first rendering of the line, “This is really happening.” After the chorus we enter an extended percussive passage that calls up imagery of machines in motion, perhaps towards an unknown front, perhaps expelling the fossil fuels that warm the planet. While that interpretation of wordless sound is little more than pure speculation, there’s no denying the emotional impact of the return of the four-note motif and the utter sadness that simple pattern communicates. As the song fades over the repetition of that motif and the fixed electronic rhythms, we hear fragments of the song’s mantra . . . the first of the children, the children first, the children. While “think of the children first” has become a tired cliché in a world where adults, with their bizarre obsessions with guns, hatred, racism and violence, completely ignore the impact of their actions on their children, “Idioteque” is a passionate plea to hit the reset button, put our petty conflicts aside and create a world where we are not killing and hurting our children . . . or each other.

“Morning Bell” is a less intense, but still compelling piece about a failing marriage that continues the theme of devaluing the children in the pursuit of pettiness. “Cut the kids in half” is a chilling commentary on our lack of Solomonic wisdom. The secondary theme—about waking up one morning and wondering who the fuck you are and who the fuck is lying next to you in the bed—is less explicit. I’m not sure why they chose to place an alternative version of the song on Amnesiac, a decision that weakened that album’s appeal to me. I think alt versions belong on deluxe editions, where I can choose to study or ignore them.

Church organ (you can hear the stops!) opens the path to “Motion Picture Soundtrack,” a sad commentary on our tendency to form identities and habits from our contact with film and television. The omnipresence of image projection in our modern Western culture has created a culture so image-focused and other-focused that it becomes easy to separate ourselves from the real person and imagine our lives as a perpetual film where we play the leading role. This trick allows us to escape any responsibility for our actions while we watch our gradual disintegration with gruesome delight:

Red wine and sleeping pills
Help me get back to your arms
Cheap sex and sad films
Help me get where I belong

Actors playing alcoholics nearly always when the Oscar, and there’s nothing like on-screen debasement to enhance your acting credentials. The lure of the visuals encourage the weak and stupid to admire the fallen hero and transform the pursuit of happiness into the pursuit of manufactured thrills. This ability to mythologize our lives actually robs them of any genuine meaning; instead, we become “tragic” figures in the falsest sense of the word. What clinches the song for me is the introduction of the harp in the second verse: the obvious nod to maudlin melodrama is brilliant musical satire . . . but goddamn, what a sad, sad song. Kid A ends here . . . or not. There is a brief synthesized piece following “Motion Picture Soundtrack,” then well over a minute of silence, which seems oddly appropriate . . . the effect is rather like the forty-five seconds of piano fade at the end of “A Day in the Life,” a long moment for the listener to collect thoughts and feelings.

Even with my mother’s gift of enlightenment, my initial love affair with Radiohead was relatively brief. After the disappointing first contact with OK Computer, I returned to punk and the pursuit of sexual pleasure, completely forgetting about Radiohead for oh, about ten years. Once I connected with my life partner, my sex drive remained at peak levels, but all that time I’d spent on sampling potential fuck buddies was now free time to explore music again, a development that resulted in this blog and a reunion with Radiohead.

I resisted an almost addictive urge to start the reconnection process with Kid A and instead began at the beginning, with Pablo Honey and The Bends. Approaching OK Computer in chronological order led to a deeper appreciation, but the pleasure I felt when listening to that album simply did not compare to the absolute delight I felt hearing Kid A again. It remains my favorite Radiohead album, the sublime sound of artists overcoming fears and expectations to create something unique and wondrous.

 

4 responses

  1. […] 2000-October 2007: During a home-for-the-holidays visit from college, my mother turned me on to Kid A. I loved every second of that record and still do. However, the love I felt for a great piece of […]

    Like

  2. This may be the best radiohead review out there; awesome!

    Like

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