director's cut, Spin, 2000
by Simon Reynolds
There has always been something slightly uncool about Radiohead. The characterless name, binding them to that undistinguished pre-Britpop era of semi-noisy guitarbands with equally blah names like The Catherine Wheel. The albatross of "Creep," the sort-of-great, sort-of-embarrassing song whose rousing anthemic-ness they've long since complicated. The superfluous "h" in Yorke's Christian name. "Cool" has never been Radiohead's thing, though. Leaving all that hipster credibility stuff to the Sonic Youths, Becks, and Stereolabs, Radiohead instead lay their wares out on the stall marked "importance." They hark back to an era when bands could presume the existence of an audience that took them seriously, and audiences in turn looked to bands to somehow explain them rather than merely entertain.
This self-seriousness--the earnestness of being important--is why critics continually reach back for the Pink Floyd comparison. (That, and the sheer magnitude of Radiohead's music and themes). It's not the tinsel and tack of Seventies pop culture that is unsalvageable from that period. It's the solemnity and sense of entitlement with which bands comported themselves as Artists--the concept albums, the gatefold symbolism. Everything about Radiohead---the trouble they take over track sequencing the albums to work as wholes, the lavish artwork and cryptic videos, the ten month sojourns in their recording studio in the English countryside---connects them to the pre-irony era when bands aimed to make major artistic statements. In the age of pop's tyrannical triviality, there's something almost heroic about this unfashionable striving towards the deep-and-meaningful.
Like a lot of people of the electronic persuasion, I was eventually seduced by the ear-ravishing sonic splendor and textured loveliness of OK Computer. I've still got only the faintest idea of what Radiohead are "about", or what any single Computer lyric describes. Luckily for me, it's sheer sound that Radiohead have plunged into full-tilt this time round. Kid A's opening tracks make a mockery of the impulse to interpret or identify. "Everything In Its Right Place" is full of eerily pulsating voice-riffs that recall Laurie Anderson's "O Superman" or Robert Wyatt's Rock Bottom--bleats of digital baby babble and smeared streaks of vocal tone-color that blend indistinguishably with the silvery synth-lines. A honeycomb of music-box chimes and glitchy electronix that sound like chirruping space-critters and robo-birds, "Kid A" could be a track by Mouse On Mars or Curd Duca; Thom Yorke's voice melts and extrudes like Dali-esque cheese whiz. After this jaw-dropping oddness, the relatively normal rock propulsion of "The National Anthem"---a grind-and-surge bass-riff, cymbal-splashy motorik drums---ought to disappoint. But the song is awesome, kosmik highway rock that splits the difference between Hawkwind's "Silver Machine" and Can's "Mother Sky," then throws a freeblowing bedlam of Art Ensemble of Chicago horns into the equation. All wincing and waning atmospherics, the out-of-body-experience ballad "How To Disappear Completely" calms the energy levels in preparation for "Treefingers", an ambient instrumental whose vapors and twinkling hazes make me think of a rain forest stirring and wiping the sleep from its eyes. Now you too can own your own miniature of Eternity.
Revealing fact: a high proportion of Radiohead websites provide fans with "guitar tabs" as well as song lyrics, so that the Jonny Greenwood worshippers can mimic his every last fret fingering and tone-bend. Something tells me there won't be too many chordings transcribed from Kid A, though. Saturated with effects and gaseous with sustain, the guitars* work like synthesizers rather than riff-machines: the sounds they generate resemble natural phenomena--dew settling, cloud-drift--more than powerchords or lead lines. Radiohead have gone so far into the studio-as-instrument aesthetic (with producer Nigel Godrich as "sixth" member), into overdubbing, signal processing, radical stereo separation, and other anti-naturalistic techniques, that they've effectively made a post-rock record.
That said, Kid A's "side two" (no such thing in the CD age of course, but "Treefingers" feels like the classic "weird one" at the end of the first side) is more conventionally songful and rocking. "Optimistic," for instance, is mined from the same lustrous gray seam of puritan Brit-rock as Echo & The Bunnymen's Heaven Up Here and U2's "Pride (In the Name of Love)". "Idioteque" does for the modern dance what PiL with "Death Disco" and Joy Division with "She's Lost Control" did at the turn of the Eighties. Call it bleak house or glum'n'bass: the track works through the tension between the heartless, inflexible machine-beat and Yorke's all-too-human warble (he sounds skin-less, a quivering amoeba of hypersensitivity).
Lyrically, I'm still not convinced that Yorke's opacities and crypticisms don't conceal hidden shallows, c..f. Michael Stipe. But as just another instrument in the band, as a texture--swoony, oozy, almost voluptuously forlorn--in the Radiohead sound, he dazzles. He moves through the strange architecture of these songs with a poise and grace comparable to his hero Scott Walker. Initially it seems peculiar that a singer/lyricist who obviously expects listeners to hang on his every word, should have such deliberately indistinct enunciation. But maybe that's just a ruse to make people listen very closely, in the process intensifying every other sound in the record, and the relationships between them. It works the other way: the music marshals and bestows the gravity that makes decoding the lyrics feel urgent and essential.
Yorke's words are less oblique this time round, but way more indecipherable; much of the time, we're in real Scuse Me While I Kiss this Guy territory. Where you can make them out, they evoke numb disassociation, dejection, ennui, indifference, isolation. "Optimistic" (it's not the least bit, of course) scans the world with a jaundiced eye and sees only bestial, un-evolved struggle: "vultures circling the dead", big fish eating little fish, and people who seem like they "just came out the swamp". "In Limbo" recalls the fatalistic castaways and ultra-passive nonentities from Eno's mid-Seventies solo albums. "Idioteque" bleats wearily about an "Ice Age coming" (presumably emotional rather than climatic) and "Motion Picture Soundtrack" closes the album with the proverbial whimper--a mushmouthed Yorke mumbling about dulling the pain with "red wine and sleeping pills... cheap sex and sad films" amidst near-kitsch cascades of harp and soaring angel-choir harmonies.
On first, stunned listen, Kid A seems like the sort of album typically followed--a few years later, and after chastening meetings between band and accountants--with the Back To Our Roots Record, the retreat to scaled-down simplicity. ("We realized that deep down, in our heart of hearts, our early sound was what we're really about"--you know the score). With further immersion (and this is an album that makes you want to curl up in foetal ball inside your headphones), the uncommercialism seems less blatant, the songfulness emerges from the strangeness. The track sequencing, immaculate and invincible in its aesthetic righteousness, gives the album the kind of shape and trajectory that lingers in your mind; it's a record people will want to play over and over in its entirety, without reprogramming micro-albums of their favorite songs. Smart, too, of Radiohead to resist the temptation to release a double, despite having more than enough material, and instead stick to a length that (at 50 minutes) is close to the classic vinyl elpee's duration.
Kid A does not strike me as the act of commercial suicide that some will castigate and others celebrate it as. That doesn't mean it's not hugely ambitious or adventurous (it may even be "important", whatever that could possibly mean in this day and age). But the audience amassed through The Bends and OK Computer is not suddenly going to wither away. Part of being into Radiohead is a willingness to take seriously the band's taking themselves (too) seriously. The initial alien-ation effect of Kid A will not deter their fans from persevering and discovering that it's their best and most beautiful album. as well as their bravest.
* um, well, ah, writing this i was unaware that in fact there's not much guitar on the record at all, so those synth-like guitar-tones i was hearing were in fact probably synths, or at least Ondes Martenot....