Back in 2000, rumours that Radiohead were busy working on their next LP, generated much anticipation and expectation among their legion of devotees. The band’s last album, 1997’s OK Computer, had become a worldwide hit, propelling them into the international stratosphere. So when it was finally announced that they were soon issuing a follow-up, naturally everyone waited with bated breath. However on release, Kid A was met with a fairly chilly reception by both critics and followers alike. Where were the guitars? What happened to the big anti-corporate anthems dedicated to introverted/alienated youth? Obviously the world just wasn’t yet ready for such a dramatic reinvention. Even this listener felt let down. But with repeated plays, something began to emerge, a dark wraith-like beauty from out of the seemingly cold digital murk.
Opener “Everything In Its Right Place” is simply swimming in eerie claustrophobic sound effects and Thom Yorke’s creepily warped vocals. Hearing the title song is like listening to another band entirely, not the same one who gave us “Fake Plastic Trees” and “No Surprises”. Kid A is certainly not for those who like their more traditional pop-rock, with its unnerving binary rhythms and once again, Yorke’s heavily manipulated voice. This is the sort of thing one either gets or doesn’t, no matter how hard the listener might try.
The first hint of the Radiohead of yore is on “The National Anthem”, a tune whose main feature is a pulsating bass riff, surrounded by a multitude of quirky robotic sounds, near free-jazz disorder, and a vocal that is almost normal in comparison to the previous two efforts. On “How To Disappear Completely” Radiohead make a potential peace offering to the listener, one which serves as a pleasant bridge between old and new. Here, Yorke’s lyrics find him dealing with the pressures of popularity while guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s penchant for avant-classical arrangements solemnly swoop and sweep around the other instruments. The Eno-inspired ambience of “Treefingers” lulls the listener into a near-state of meditation, before being rudely awoken by “Optimistic” (an ironic title as it turns out), a rambunctious post-rock number on which the group appear determined to obliterate every Radiohead myth in the book.
“In Limbo” has Yorke declaring that he’s “living in a fantasy” and has “lost his way”. The song has a dream-like slightly queasy quality to it (like much of the album itself), in complete contrast to the techno-driven “Idioteque”, a tune fraught with unyielding militant beats and more digitally treated add-ons than you can poke a mouse at. “Morning Bell” is about the closest Radiohead come to their previous selves. Guitar, bass, drums, and keyboard, the four main elements are all in place, despite Yorke’s seeming attempt at derailing it with his acerbic vocal expressions. At least the melody is pretty, enough to make it the most pleasingly aesthetic track of the album.
The LP ends on a less than positive note with the atmospheric “Motion Picture Soundtrack”, a dark, gloomy piece replete with celestial harps and an angelic choir hovering in the heavens, although with what could be interpreted as having somewhat sinister undertones, before evaporating into a mysterious fog of its own making.
This is a record with plenty of skeletons in the cupboard, and shadows in every corner. It may not be Radiohead’s best album, although it could be described as one of their boldest, and most marginalising. Defying fans’ demands for ‘more of the same’ was a brave decision, and one not taken lightly by the band itself. It would appear that after the strenuous, nigh nervous-breakdown inducing stadium tours in support of OK Computer that Yorke (with help from Greenwood) was determined to deconstruct everything that had gone before, and create a new beginning. Kid A may not have been what every fan wanted, but it was certainly what Radiohead themselves obviously needed.