Thinking Man's Songs

Radiohead sorts through its frustration with Kid A

What does the music wrenched from the reluctant psyche of a tortured man sound like? Kid A. With more audience anticipation than the birth of a nation, Radiohead has released Kid A, the fourth album from the media-defined Most Important Band in Rock. To listen to the album is to witness the internal struggle of Thom Yorke. The English group's creative mastermind has described the music-making process behind this album in terms usually reserved for stomach viruses and military combat: painful, nightmarish, frustrating. After 1997's OK Computer, Yorke was a broken man. Unhinged by disappointment with his industry, his political environment, and his commercial world, Yorke and company nearly split. Instead of disbanding Radiohead has emerged from the rubble of self-destruction and re-creation with a paragon uniquely Radiohead.

Kid A is paradoxically an album almost purely about alienation that speaks intimately to the masses. Radiohead is a phenomenon for that very fact: a thinking man's band that also sells millions. Kid A documents the panic of realizing mortality, the weariness of frustration, and the anxiety of isolation. To its advantage Kid A is more dreamy and stream-of-conscious than OK Computer. Even the ornate CD booklet borrows from Dadaism with its random buzz phrases and clichés cluttering the page in old-fashioned red-and-black typeface. While OK Computer boldly challenged voodoo economics, networking yuppies, and pragmatism over idealism, Kid A dips into the more intimate spaces of the human mind and emerges woozy and confused. It's as though Yorke took his eyes off the face of the global marketplace and stared directly at himself. His conclusion? “That man, that's not me,” he mutters on “How to Disappear Completely,” a bitter song made bittersweet only by sympathetic strings, random percolating trumpet, and Jonny Greenwood's broad strokes of howling guitar. Like a pleasant specter, the song is one of the loveliest and most haunting on the album.

“Everything in Its Right Place,” the first track, is engaging from the first warm note. Like many Radiohead songs, “Everything” seems to be a simple tune: keyboard, voice, metronomic beat. But behind those basic elements is Yorke's voice, sampled and spliced, then twisted and layered. Though many of the songs contain dreamlike lyrics (“I slipped away,” “I woke up,” “sleeping pills,” “beds”), the music mirrors those images remarkably. “Kid A,” an electronic track that chimes like early Aphex Twin, gives way to a crescendo of synth strings that eventually fades, just as dream images wash in and out. (In fact it may be argued that Kid A not only details dream images but also induces lucid dreaming. I woke up to the album today with the vibrant image of landing on a barren planet, panicking from the feeling of isolation while in the company of a hundred others, and then having to slay a Goliath-size squid. No kidding.) The instrumental “Treefingers” sounds like a Brian Eno B-side, or Vangelis's scoring for Blade Runner, but that's not a good thing. This song is unique only for Radiohead; the formula has been used in modern rock too many times.

Radiohead's latest album indulges the group's fetish for experimentation
Tom Sheehan
Radiohead's latest album indulges the group's fetish for experimentation

“In Limbo” seems to describe that postsleep state, that blurred line between subconsciousness and consciousness. “You're living in a fantasy world,” Yorke repeats atop a staccato keyboard, and Greenwood's swaying guitar. Again the music is mellow until everything threatens to destruct (the backward-tape effect), Yorke wails, and then it washes away. Connecting water imagery with the state of sleep, Yorke warns: “I'm lost at sea/Don't bother me/I've lost my way.” Nevertheless, despite the intensity and shadows, Radiohead hasn't lost its way with melody and rhythm. Like nearly every track on OK Computer, these songs get stuck in your head. You may be congregating with capitalists at the water cooler, but you'll be repeating to yourself: “I'm not here; this isn't happening.” Perhaps this is Yorke's way of subverting the masses. I think it'll work.

 
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