Radiohead: Kid A
New and Fruitful Paths
When Radiohead released their third album, OK Computer, it swiftly and assuredly became my favorite album of all time. After hearing Kid A, which hits shelves today, I’m not sure how it affects OK Computer’s rank. I wouldn’t call Kid A a better album, and I wouldn’t call it a worse album; I’d have to call it a very very different album, one that’s difficult to compare to the band’s previous work, much less anyone else’s. Despite, or perhaps because of its eccentricities, Kid A manages to become a beautifully cohesive piece of art and one of the best albums released this year.
The disc opens with “Everything In Its Right Place,” a stripped down arrangement of organs backing soft but intent, repeated vocals and a weird distorted backup vocal. The sound of the organ gradually morphs from organic (no pun intended) to tinny and electronic, a transformation that foreshadows a fundamental aspect of the album itself. Over the past few years, Radiohead has been lauded for their creative and innovative use of guitars. For this album, the band nearly abandoned the instrument, pursuing a more electronic sound. Have no fear though, traditionalists; apparently the band recorded over thirty songs, some electronic and some guitar-based, and most of the guitar tracks will surface on a fifth CD as soon as this spring.
The album continues with two contrasting songs. The first is the title track, a bizarrely minimalist mix of bells and a stuttering drum beat. The second, “The National Anthem,” starts out with a much more approachable groove under the distorted lyrics “Everyone just stop the fear.” The song continues pretty routinely, until at some point, a slightly unexpected nightmarish cacophony of horns and saxophones bursts in and takes over. These songs sound completely different, and yet they share an eerie feeling of distance that is present throughout the album, tying the songs together despite the wide range of styles.
Kid A has been available for free streaming download on the Internet for some time now, because the band wanted it to be listened to in its entirety, rather than through radio singles. While this approach has not been very successful (the album’s catchiest track, “Optimistic,” was alternative radio’s most added track last week), listening to certain tracks explains their reasoning. “Treefingers,” for example, a drumless, lyricless, flowing ambient piece is almost nothing on its own. Here, however, as a bridge into “Optimistic,” it serves as a wonderful introduction. “In Limbo” and the untitled hidden track are similar, songs which might not hold up on their own but which fit into the intricate design of the album perfectly.
Despite the holistic nature of the album, I’m still drawn to songs that work well independently. The ascending and descending guitar lines of “Optimistic” make it extremely memorable, and my favorite track on the album, “Idioteque,” channels the spirit of Aphex Twin, assembling a soundscape of spooky urgency that is made doubly powerful by Thom Yorke’s selectively anguished vocals. And of course, long-time fans of the band will be happy to see a traditional live favorite and a song that almost appeared on OK Computer, “Motion Picture Soundtrack,” which is transcribed onto organ (taking the album out where it came in) and is given a funereal yet vaguely triumphant background.
As with Radiohead’s other albums, many stories and structures could be placed to the sequence of songs on Kid A, but whatever the purpose of its arrangement, there is an undeniable flow between the songs. Together, the package is pleasant to listen to, thought-provoking, original, and compelling. The band deserves immense praise for returning from one of the most tense stages of their existence and delivering an album that, along with The Bends and OK Computer, belongs in any CD collection.