All good things come to an end as the saying goes. Britpop had to end at some point after peaking in the summer of 1995 with Blur v Oasis. The most commonly cited factor that brought about the movement’s end is Radiohead’s OK Computer. We all know about that album. How many times has that thing been voted as one of, if not the best album of all time? Every track was a classic, every note was perfect, it was an apex of music, and it cemented Radiohead as one of the most influential bands in Britain (Or so the story goes; me personally, I’ve never really been able to gel with it that much).
And of course, with every high comes a low.
Radiohead’s came as they slogged their way through the gruelling Against Demons tour to promote the album. Almost a year of being on the road nearly wiped the band out. Like Pulp in the previous review, they were sick and tired of playing the same songs, doing the same interviews and appearing on the same television shows constantly week after week, city after city. OK Computer was so popular, Radiohead was so popular, that they couldn’t handle it.
When it all finally came to an end in mid-1998 Thom Yorke was especially feeling the effects, having become cynical to the concept of rock and dealing with writer’s block that prohibited him from writing new songs. By the time the band finally reconvened at the start of 1999, he still was not fully back to his old self. Anything he did have to offer was disjointed and/or basic and he would be damned if he was just going to go back to writing rock songs around them and making his brain sick again. The way to go now in his eyes was something he had gelled with in the aftermath of the tour; electronica.
Now how the hell was that going to work for an alt-rock band like Radiohead? The Greenwoods voiced their concern that it was “art rock nonsense just for its own sake”. Ed O’Brien was seemingly going to be left little to do as guitarist. And the fanbase were eagerly awaiting what they thought would be OK Computer II; typically atypical rock.
Was Radiohead about to sign its death warrant in revolt against their biggest success, or would they successfully evolve the sound of music once again?
The answer lay with Kid A.
Track #1 – Everything In Its Right Place
Setting up Kid A right away as the antithesis of OK Computer is this introductory track. Basic structure, haunting electronic sounds only and random sentences stitched together to form lyrics. The latter point at the time of release led to the accusation of it being a load of gibberish but according to Yorke, it was a reflection on his mental state during the tour. All things considered it is quite minimalist and a gradual step into the experimental field Radiohead will be playing in.
Track #2 – Kid A
Title track time. Here I find this one brings the ear closer to the sound as Thom’s vocals are distorted to the point of indecipherability, and we hear Phil Selway’s drumming guiding us along what sounds like a twisted nursery rhyme tune. Then at 3 minutes in, there’s a scratch of guitar that throws you off, the synths begin to kick in, the anticipation builds along with a sense of dread and then…more of the same, which makes you relax a little before the song ends with a distorted baby’s wail. That’s when I checked the lyrics, saw the third verse said ‘Standing in the shadows at the end of my bed’, and realised what was going on. Jesus Christ.
Track #3 – The National Anthem
Hot damn I love this track. This is Colin Greenwood’s day in the sun as he commands this track with that simple but rocking bassline. We get an orchestra in this song too, for what has been described as a session of “traffic jam” music which Yorke got so into that he broke his foot whilst conducting. With that increasing manic clashing of brass, I can believe that. It’s a near 6 minute jam session by a band with zero f*cks left to give and the result is such a beautiful mess that flies by. Special shoutout aswell to anytime the band plays it live, particularly at Reading 2009.
Track #4 – How to Disappear Completely
I like to think this song lulled OK Computer fans into a false sense of security with the opening acoustic guitar and Thom’s lyrics no longer being put through a ring modulator. While this one sounds more ethereal (Helped by the fact it was recorded in Dorchester Abbey), this has some of the most downbeat lyrics to be found. Having half of them be the sentence ‘I’m not here’ will do that. And then you get to the final minute. The orchestra loses the plot momentarily, as if screeching in pain, before recomposing themselves as Thom fades away. That’s one way to translate death to sound. Or maybe it’s hopeless escape. One of the two. Or both.
Track #5 – Treefingers
Imagine yourself in a large white room. Miles of space around you. Nothing to fill it. Just yourself. You’re alone. But you’re safe. That’s what Treefingers conjures up, for me at least.
Track #6 – Optimistic
Irony incoming I bet, was my reaction when I saw that title. Optimism and Radiohead seemed like water and oil to me. But it all stems from a message of reassurance that Thom received from his partner, Rachel – ‘Try the best you can/the best is good enough’. It’s a little too basic for Kid A though. It’s good, but it ain’t fantastic like everything has been up to this point.
Track #7 – In Limbo
Once again leaning to Thom’s cynicism with Radiohead’s increased exposure, and magnifying it more than any other track up to this point, In Limbo implies he was stuck between the real world with all the cameras and the people biting at his heels, and a fantasy world, a world of dreams where he was safe (More than likely whatever he was imagining in his head when Treefingers was made). The lyrics are once again seemingly slapdash like they were on Everything In Its Right Place but if you look closely, they all tie together. ‘I’m on your side’? Force fed false reassurance from prying eyes that won’t leave him. ‘Nowhere to hide’. ‘I’m lost at sea’. Stuck miles away from home. ‘Don’t bother me’. Doesn’t want to be back in reality. Lyrically, this is my favourite track on Kid A by a mile.
Track #8 – Idioteque
I’ve been looking forward to this one. You always seem to hear about this one when Kid A is brought up. After the electronica had been blended nicely with Radiohead’s rock sound and perverted orchestrations, here it is well and truly on display once again. While Colin’s shining moment was The National Anthem, brother Jonny’s is definitely Idioteque. While things have felt a little fraught but still held together for a few tracks now, this track undoes that as Radiohead descend back into mania. With lyrics like ‘Who’s in a bunker, who’s in a bunker?’ and ‘Ice age coming, ice age coming’, this feels like a psychotic calm after the storm. I guess we’ll be playing this once World War 3 finally happens.
Track #9 – Morning Bell
Nice transition from Idioteque to this song; I didn’t realise Morning Bell had started until I looked up and saw it had. Immediately you get a more soothing feel in stark contrast to Idioteque but Thom’s strained vocals remind you you’re still listening to Radiohead. ‘Cut the kids in half’ reminds you you’re still listening to Kid A. However, I don’t think there is really much to say about this song. Like Optimistic, it does feel a little bit basic. A little unnerving, yes, but it wouldn’t really be Radiohead if it wasn’t unnerving would it?
Track #10 – Motion Picture Soundtrack
A hangover from OK Computer, which I’ll say right now has one of my favourite Radiohead songs in the form of Exit Music (For a Film). Like that song, this definitely feels like it comes from a soundtrack to a film thanks to the swirly sounds of a harp. I’d argue that it is Exit Music’s little sister; if you look at the lyrics to both you get the standard feeling of reluctant attention as the narrator seemingly talks of suicide (‘Red wine and sleeping pills’ and ‘I will see you in the next life’ kind of sum it up). But while Exit Music has a level of bombast to it, Motion Picture Soundtrack has a more gentle and subtle majesty. Which is kind of why I instead buy Thom’s interpretation of the song; that it’s saying goodbye to a dying loved one. If it was from their point of view, maybe it would sound like a grandiose final note, which is what a lot of us want to go out on, which is what the narrators of Exit Music and (perhaps) How to Disappear Completely do. But because it’s from someone else’s point of view, someone who is making peace with the idea that someone’s suffering is coming to an end, it gives us a more gentle, relaxing sound instead. An ideal finale for an album like Kid A.
I put this review off for a long time. I always thought you would have to be in the right frame of mind to listen to any Radiohead album, let alone Kid A, and with the constant cycle of despair that is the pandemic still raging on I was worried in case I wasn’t entirely ready for it. But today I finally bit the bullet and you know what? I’m glad I did. Kid A is a damn near perfect album in my book. It’s not a conventional album by any means, nor is it an easy listen (I don’t exactly see myself sitting back in my chair and thinking “Why don’t I listen to In Limbo?”), but it is truly an artistic masterpiece. Radiohead excel themselves here, subverting their norm, stepping into new territory and nailing it with the help of Nigel Godrich.
And indeed, this is the perfect sequel to OK Computer.
Radiohead needed to do an album that wasn’t OK Computer, one that would help them vent their frustrations, one that would allow them to feel good about making music again, one that would make people scratch their heads but still enjoy themselves, one that wouldn’t be appreciated right away but in due course to allow the band time to recharge. Kid A achieves all of those. Looking back, not releasing any singles for this album was a smart move. Any preview would have killed sales. They gently forced the general public to accept them for what they were now. Not many bands can do that.
As far as protests against fame go, Kid A is a shining example.