Ever since the 1995 release of The Bends, British band Radiohead has been one of the most innovative groups in alternative rock. While their first album, Pablo Honey, only hinted at their talent, their next two records, The Bends and OK Computer are regarded as two of the best albums of the 90’s. Radiohead’s 2000 release, Kid A, is a monumental departure from the band’s previously guitar and vocals driven music. While they dabbled in electronica on OK Computer, the album was still driven by frontman Thom Yorke’s signature vocals and the guitar playing of Thom, Jonny Greenwood, and Ed O’Brien. On Kid A, neither Thom’s vocals nor the band’s usual guitars appear in an easily recognizable form until the fourth track. The complex, layered composition of Kid A makes it a record that demands several listens in order to be fully appreciated. Although it does not provide quite as much depth as OK Computer, which grew more impressive with each listen while still being accessible at first, Kid A heralds a new age for both the band and all alternative music.
Even before pressing play, one can easily see that Kid A is a unique album. Its liner notes (which any music fan examines as soon as he purchases the album) do not contain the usual lyrics, pictures of the band, or song commentary. Instead, they are full of an unsettling mixture of surrealist art. Pixelated, jagged splashes of color and disjointed images adorn the pages, while special translucent paper inserts and numerous fold-out sections attest to the enormous artistic effort that went into the creation of this album. Once this has awed the fan, a check behind the case reveals another hidden booklet of sketches and a bizarre assortment of what at first appears to be lyrics. However, only the lyrics of the album’s title track can be found in the booklet; the rest is an unnerving mess of words and phrases that serve as an emotional subtext for the record.
The band also decided to forego nearly all forms of publicity for the release; there were no singles, no videos, and no tours to promote the album. Instead, the band released numerous “blips” over the internet and television. These blips consisted of short snippets of the new music coupled with video and animations related to the mysterious contents of the CD’s booklets and the record’s enigmatic concept. Thom Yorke has several times said that the album is dedicated to “the first human clone,” whom he believes already lives. Thom has also stated that the album is based on his theory of a new stage of evolution for the human race.
Despite all the mystery surrounding the album, it is the music that truly matters, and that part of the record is amazing. While definitely a departure from the group’s usual sound, the music still manages to sound uniquely Radiohead. It is actually rather apparent why the band neglected to release singles for the album: this is one record that is much, much more than the mere sum of its parts. The emotional effect of becomes much more apparent thorough the interplay of the dynamic, multi-layered songs.
Kid A opens with the song “Everything in it’s Right Place,” but Thom’s digitally tortured vocals and frantic gasps for breath give the impression that something is terribly, terribly wrong. Next comes “Kid A,” the most electronica influenced song on the CD, in which Thom’s voice is so distorted that the hidden booklet is needed to decipher many of his lyrics. The pounding bass line and blaring horn improvisational on “The National Anthem” add a startling accent to Thom’s even more frenzied vocals. Cut to the quiet contrast of “How to Disappear Completely,” in which Thom’s more conventional singing and a recognizable guitar part lull the listener into the all too human fantasy of leaving one’s troubles and disappearing forever. The song “Treefingers” is Radiohead’s first instrumental composition, and while it sounds completely synthesized, all of its dreamy, ethereal sounds are made through skillful manipulation of the guitar.
On “Optimistic,” the most “catchy” song on the record, the guitars come into full swing, having been either distorted into obscurity or kept quiet for the first half of the record. “In Limbo” is another dream-like, floating piece, which segues into the stunning dance-like beat of “Idioteque.” The song’s title may refer to the fact that is almost a parody of dance music, or the song’s lyrics, which allude to apocalypse and the futility of nuclear warfare.
“Morning Bell” is another enigmatic song. While critics and listeners have most often thought of it as a “break-up song,” with its lyrics such as “you can keep the furniture” and “cut the kids in half.” Thom, however, attests that it is the true account of a ghost who inhabited a house he used to live in, until it was exorcised by the removal of the house’s plaster walls, in which the ghost was apparently imprisoned. The lyrics, however, seem to support either interpretation, leaving one guessing as to what Thom is talking about. The last song on Kid A is the heavenly sounding “Motion Picture Soundtrack,” with its organ music and angelic harps.
While some listeners will be initially put off by the record’s unconventional sound, it is an exciting excursion into new territory for Radiohead, and hints of truly amazing things to come.