Radiohead - Kid A
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
Around the release of the Radiohead’s last record, Hail To The Thief, I read somewhere that the furore surrounding the band’s music makes it impossible to listen without also hearing the masses of criticism, reviewery and verbiage that surrounds them. Such statements do nothing but add to the hyperbole that almost broke up the band as Radiohead toured the world and swept the board with the cultured digi-rock of 1997’s epochal OK Computer.
The volume of press that has surrounded the band ever since makes for a hugely unnatural relationship between band and fan – a relationship that appears further distorted by every passing hack’s two-pennies’ worth. Even contemporaries were keen to make their voices heard; most with messages admiration if not adulation. Negative remarks were made almost exclusively by rock’s elite: Cerys Matthews (she was in the band that did the one about “it” being all over the front page, road rage etc), “songwriter” Kelly Jones and someone called “Dunst”, who was in Chumbawamba. Apparently.
Such commentary has surely made Radiohead the most talked about band of all time, a position previously held by the likes of The Beatles, Stones, Nirvana, Beach Boys... You know, the “classics” - bands that don’t exist anymore, if not in reality then in effect.
As time wore on and the hype machine slowly ground to a halt, many would be left asking what Radiohead would do next. Amidst Thom Yorke’s interminable whining on the band’s tour film “Meeting People Is Easy” (“It’s just a headfuck, a total headfuck”), guitarist Ed O’Brien’s cryptic online-studio-diary-thing and talk of Radiohead making a record “for themselves”, 2000’s “Kid A” emerged. An album recorded in a climate so obviously hostile and fraught with (pre)tension was always going to make waves.
Thom Yorke begins by intoning a mass from behind a keyboard, achieving intensity and distance via repetition and ambiguity - and a little help from his friends. As the song builds to a climax, a montage of Yorkettes flourish from Jonny Greenwood’s new sampler – like the ghouls have escaped from Egon’s Ghost Trap.
At this stage the listener knows nothing of what is to come, but Kid A has already been polite enough to freshen the listener’s palette. Having left us on the last album with a somewhat pallid, anaemic sounding “The Tourist”, “Everything In Its Right Place” is the ultimate leveller - the band’s statements in the press about breaking up and reconstructing the band with the same five people made to music.
The title track sees Yorke take a backseat to a stick-clicking electro-tribalism from drummer Phil Selway, and Greenwood’s primitive use of the primitive electronic instrument, the Ondes Musicales. Having been too dumbfounded to make notes up to now, a writer from the Daily Mail has just scribbled the word “pretentious” in his pad; the sole journalistic hook for his review. What he needs to revoke his already-made-up mind is something gritty; guitar solos – rock ‘n roll.
No. No more of that, Mr. Writer, we’ve done that. But stick around anyway, we’ve got some free-jazz coming up next, it sounds like all the players are trapped in a li-… Radiohead treat their critics with reckless abandon as many critics in turn abandoned the band upon first listen to Kid A, only to return, tail between legs, for the free-for-all eclecticism of Hail To The Thief.
All is not lost though, as “How To Disappear Completely” does bring with it some guitar, a much-needed relief for those struggling to keep up. The stars of the show however, must be Jonny Greenwood’s strings. Hear them whirl through bleeps and technology before soaring and swirling overhead – a palpable vortex sucking the listener directly to the eye of the storm, and reminding you why you bought those ridiculously expensive speakers in the first place.
“Treefingers” is responsible for much of the bad press Kid A received, Radiohead chose to sandwich Eno-inspired ambience between the guitars of “How To Disappear Completely” and “Optimistic”. As that hack from the Mail salivates over his oh-so-clever lament, I’ll let the rest of you in on a secret. “Treefingers”, the infamous “whole load of nothing”, was performed entirely on guitar. Guitar altered beyond all recognition maybe, but it seems Radiohead were acutely aware of the angle many critics would take, and pre-empted this response.
Kid A’s other major talking point is “Idioteque”, a composite of beats and samples of electronica, with Thom Yorke freestyling over the top. But of course! As unexpected as OK Computer’s “Fitter Happier”, it’s impossible not to have an opinion here. “Idioteque” is the sound of paranoia, helplessness and confusion (“We’re not scaremongering/This is really happening”). Check the album sleeve. “Idioteque” also appears to be the sound of the glacial mountains that adorn the cover, and the seamless flow into “Morning Bell” represents Stanley Donwood’s snowscapes and jagged sketches perfectly.
A mournful pump-organ enters and Yorke gives the definitive version of “Motion Picture Soundtrack”, a song that can be traced back as early as 1993. “I will see you/In the next life”, he promises, in the same withering, child-like falsetto we heard complaining in “Meeting People Is Easy”. Only this time we are endeared to Thom Yorke, not embarrassed for him.
And that’s it. Radiohead may have spent months in the studio indulging themselves with endless musical experimentation, but they were kind enough to condense it to fifty minutes for you and I, and quite a journey it is too. And then, to finish, unannounced; harp, strings and ambience fresh from Pandora’s box cleanse the palette once more. Take heed: this final fifty-second musical sorbet is to be savoured, for dessert a la Radiohead is something of a let down…
By: Colin Cooper
Published on: 2004-03-09