Classic Album Review - Radiohead: Kid A

You are in one of those rooms in old sci-fi movies where there are doors in every direction, and each one leads to a whole new universe. You take a few cautious steps forward, reach out, grab a handle, and open the door. And then you get sucked into the turbulent new world. That’s what it feels like for me every time I scroll through my music collection on my iPod and click on Kid A (2000). This album is a rollercoaster ride of different emotions, seamlessly linked into an exhilarating journey through the different minds which make up Radiohead.

Kid A was the British rock band’s fourth studio album, coming out after the critically acclaimed and widely loved OK Computer (1997), a generally more acoustic alt-rock record. Even though the world was anxiously anticipating Kid A to be a follow-up album, lead singer Thom Yorke had something else in mind. After releasing OK Computer he had a mental breakdown and suffered from serious depression and writer’s block. He started listening to new styles of music, such as instrumental electronica, as a way to escape human voices and melodies, taking a keen interest in electronic producer Aphex Twin. He convinced the rest of Radiohead to follow this new sound with him into the new album, and thus the unique aesthetic of Kid A was born.

The record opens with “Everything In Its Right Place”, an eerie song which features different voice samples, filtered through so many electronic effects as to make them barely recognisable. The following song is the more minimalistic title track, opening sweetly with a simple marimba line which could just as easily be a kid’s musical toy box. An electronic drum-pad line with a pulsing rhythm joins in, followed by vocals which make the previous song’s electronic effects seem like child’s play. The song fades away, making room for the heavy bass line of “The National Anthem.” The middle of this song morphs into a freak-out session, with layers and layers of different horns playing lines on top of each other, to the point where everything just sounds like a wall of noise, and the only thing keeping it together is the relentless bass line. This was said to have been influenced by the 20th century jazz legend Charles Mingus. On top of this, Thom Yorke occasionally wails something which sounds a bit like, “what’s going on?” or, “so alone!” or, “turn it off!” or “just holding on!”. What Yorke is really saying could realistically be any or none of these lines, because he refused to release lyrics in the linear notes of the album.

When you just about feel that you can’t take the discord any longer, it fades away into quite possibly the saddest song I have ever heard: “How To Disappear Completely”. This song was said to be written by Yorke during the OK Computer tour, where he started feeling trapped due to his popularity and couldn’t handle it. His close friend and acting psychologist told him to just repeat “I’m not here, this isn’t happening”, to help him deal with his depression. These words are a recurring lyric in the song, sung again and again in Yorke’s trademark nasal voice, dripping with emotion. Near the end of the song, you can hear his warble start to break with oncoming tears, followed by the backing orchestra sliding out of key into grating chords which seem to scratch at your heart until it bleeds. Everyone would have a different experience with this song, but I am sure that each would be special.

“Treefingers” is an out-of-character ambient song which isn’t particularly special on its own, but cleanses you after the turbulent string emotions you’ve felt over the past 20 minutes, and provides the perfect transition into the second half of the album. “Optimistic” is a strong track, with the chorus being what Yorke’s wife said to him when he felt like his music was unlistenable: “you can try the best you can/ the best you can is good enough”. Some say that the bitterness in his voice reveals sarcasm, but I prefer to believe that he is being truthful, even if there is resignation in what he says. “In Limbo” is a more dreamy song, with slurred and layered vocals moaning “I’m lost at sea/ don’t bother me”, in a raw rather than melodramatic way. It ends on a disturbing note which transitions to “Idioteque”, where you can easily see connections to IDM (intellectual dance music). It is the most invigorating song, as well as the most accessible and catchy. “Morning Bell” finally eases the energy back a little, in a slightly off-kilter time signature of 5/4. It sounds like Yorke is trapped in a box, has gotten over the initial anger and energy, and is now just sadly and sweetly pleading, “release me”. “Motion Picture Soundtrack” is the perfect closer: it almost puts you to sleep, which is a welcome change after your heart being stretched in every which way with all the other songs. It sounds peacefully sad and beautiful. Radiohead said that it was inspired by old Disney movie soundtracks, and although I find it hard to see the connection, this change in pace is exactly what Kid A needed.

I have listened to Kid A more times than I can count, and each time it feels like a completely different experience, a new door I am opening. The record is incredibly intricate, with each song meticulously thought-out and consisting of layers and layers of different textures. It’s hard to believe that living people actually made it.

Similar recommended albums: Aphex Twin – I Care Because You Do, Bjork – Homogenic, Slint – Spiderland