Twenty Years Later – Radiohead’s Kid A

Twenty years after its release, Radiohead’s genre-defying Kid A is the anxiety driven yet oddly satisfying album we all need for these lonesome, chaotic times…

On October 2nd 2000, in the waning months of our newborn century, Radiohead released their fourth studio album, Kid A. The album represented a major shift in the English rockers sound and has been heralded by some as the “greatest left turn” in music history. It’s an album unlike any other, and to compare it to other albums, or Radiohead’s past work, would be like trying to compare Mozart to Doritos. 

Burnt out after more than a year of touring in support of their remarkable album, 1997s OK Computer, the pressure was on Radiohead to repeat their success, put out another “Radiohead album” in a genre they were already evolving beyond and cement their place as one of the greatest bands in the world. However, the heightening pressure of these expectations and the physical and mental toll endless cycles of albums and touring took on Radiohead not only threatened to break up the band, but amplified their feelings of self-doubt concerning their future. Kid A was a natural reaction to the lofty expectations for Radiohead, presumptions seemingly forced upon them by their adoring fans, supporters and rising fame. Instead of doing what was expected, following a tried and true formula repeated countless times in the music industry by bands big and small, Radiohead chose to craft an album that was divergent from their previous guitar-heavy sound. Kid A represented a sea change in terms of focus and inspiration for the band, finding them moving away from the brand of guitar rock that elevated them to stardom and embracing a more rhythm-focused, experimental and heavily electronic album the likes of which had never been heard before. 

Once you find yourself deep inside Kid A’s uncertain and chaotic world, the idea of trying to find some foothold, or an echo of something you’d heard before, becomes less and less feasible. Kid A is expansive yet concise, strange yet oddly familiar, and all notions of “comparison in order to better understand” disappear. The album just is, like an island unto itself, ready for the intrepid listener to get lost in its lands. It’s an album by a band eagerly trying to destroy itself in order to be born anew. The hand cutting off the head in order to facilitate the genesis of the dreamlike, stirring yet emotionally paradoxical music that would come to define Radiohead for the next twenty years.

The first time I heard Radiohead’s Kid A I was 20 years old and living adjacently above a late night fried chicken joint and across the street from an Exxon gas station. To say it was a lively block would be an understatement. In order to drown out the late night carrying on, the revving of engines as they left the petrol station, the spirited Latin-tinged music and the general atmosphere of liveliness that comes with living in an urban environment I turned to music. It was a constant panacea to the deluge of sound that vibrated regularly against my apartment’s drafty, hundred year old windows. The girl I was seeing at the time was a huge Radiohead fan, and as we played at fusing our lives and affection, she was working on sharing with me her infatuation with everything Radiohead. I had enjoyed their earlier albums, and 1994’s cultural pop hit “Creep,” with its angst-driven lyrics and hard-hitting sound was the sort of song that paralleled Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in its raw emotionality and penetrating message, which I found appealing.

Fresh out of college and living on my own for the first time with a girl and making seemingly adult decisions, I was finding myself turning away from the music that had sustained me in college in central Vermont. Slowly fading was my love affair with jam bands like the Grateful Dead or cultural legends like the Velvet Underground or David Bowie. I was finding myself looking inward just in time for Radiohead to put to music on Kid A all the feelings of angst and uncertainty that I had pushed down during my years in university. The world was becoming a big, unnerving place. I had cast my ship upon its waters and to be honest, I was scared shitless by the very real fact that I didn’t have the slightest idea what I was expected to do. The Bush-Gore election debacle had finally settled down. We had all survived Y2K. The Amazon was being deforested at an unprecedented rate and the world was embracing a new, technological epoch with phrases like “global citizen” making the rounds. Enter Kid A. If ever there was an album to personify what I was feeling, and to provide an antidote or a modicum of insight into the concept that I was not alone in my troubles it was this album. Released twenty years ago this October 2nd, the album is an iconic, genre-defying 48-minute experience that not only changed the way music was created, but helped a scared and rudderless 20 year old discover that he wasn’t so alone in such an unsettling world. 

In order to do this momentous album justice, and to expand upon the contemplation it so rightly deserves, a deep dive into each of Kid A’s 10 extraordinary songs feels apropos, unpacking the genesis, message, imagery or creative brilliance present therein. 

Everything in Its Right Place — From the opening drone of piano to the fuzzy, digital scratching of Thom Yorke’s voice struggling to utter “Everything–,” Kid A’s kickoff track is nothing short of a sonic mind meld. Yorke’s stutter-stepped vocals intermixed with an intoxicating piano hook and guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s looping guitar insanity makes the listener wonder if what they are experiencing is truly happening to them or merely passing them by. It’s a magically confusing amalgamation of divergent sounds, spoken words and glimpses of sobriety amongst an undertone of disquiet. Ultimately, what’s built up is dashed against the rocks of madness as Yorke’s repetition of “There are two colors in my head” orbits assertively before fading into oblivion as the listener becomes one with the song’s mantra of uncertainty. 

Click here for an incredible live performance of “Everything in Its Right Place” from Canal Plus Studios in Paris, France in 2001 featuring Radiohead guitarists Ed O’Brien and Jonny Greenwood sitting on the floor hacking away at effects equipment.

Kid A The album’s title track, “Kid A” is the type of song a frantic space explorer would sing to their child as they rushed to leave for an intergalactic journey. The gossamer echoes of a spaceship landing layered with notes of toy-like music and chiming crystalline octaves outline how heavily processed this offering of electronica genius is. From a vocoder effect on Yorke’s vocals making it seem like he has been possessed by a voltaic demon to a surging wall of synth strings to an infectiously elemental drum beat, “Kid A” superbly demonstrates both Radiohead’s growing electronic influences and their daring in exploring new modes of creativity.  

The National Anthem Perched atop Kid A’s shrillest peak exists “The National Anthem.” On this immensely powerful five minute plus track Yorke sings “Everyone is so near/ Everyone has got the fear/ It’s holding on” as a towering wall of fuzz-laden bass, weirdly familiar sounds sampled from radio stations and riotous brass horns assault your senses. Like a rogue tsunami growing in size as it approaches the continental shelf, the song’s rising cacophony of sound threatens to drown out Yorke’s powerful shouts of “Turn it off!” during the song’s anxiety-flecked climax. “The National Anthem” is a song for our current, chaotically troubled times, lurched forward from its genesis twenty years ago to heave its remarkably off kilter splendor against our collectively throbbing chests. Listen at your own peril/delight. 

How To Disappear Completely — At the end of Time, when the celestial beings who come after us are making their list of the Greatest Songs the Universe Ever Created, “How To Disappear Completely” is sure to be up there in the running. The song is one part “Karma Police” and one part “Let Down,” yet disconnected from the OK Computer alchemy of which they were born. Like a star that’s gone supernova, blowing off its thick gaseous shell to reveal the wildly spinning inner core, what’s revealed is certainly the purest expression of what it must feel like to leave this corporeal realm and occupy another plane of existence. The song’s string arrangements meld effortlessly with Yorke’s haunting falsetto voice, and the lyrics “I’m not here/ This isn’t happening” are a recurrent beacon of sonic light, guiding lost souls towards what comes hereafter. “How To Disappear Completely” is beauty in a bottle, genius in a song, and a fine beginning to the wind-down of Kid A’s astronomical first act. 

Click here for a hauntingly beautiful live acoustic performance of “How To Disappear Completely” from Canal Plus Studios in Paris, France in 2001 featuring an ondes Martenot, which is an early precursor to the electronic synth. 

Treefingers — Ambient in tone and tranquil in its nature, Kid A’s “Treefingers” is a wondrously soothing panorama of tranquility and an inviting reprieve from the potent emotion present on the album’s preceding four tracks. The song’s calming milieu was built by Yorke digitally processing guitarist Ed O’Brien’s guitar loops, rearranging and layering them digitally. What was birthed by this process was a perception of several guitar-like instruments playing simultaneously when in reality, it was just O’Brien’s. An interview with Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood on BBC Radio 3 circa 2001 expands upon the process of creating the ambient nature of “Treefingers” and it nicely reveals the depths of the deception present within:

Jonny Greenwood: “Yeah. And there’s songs like ‘Treefingers’, which is just one guitar, but people just assume that it isn’t.”

Mark Russell (BBC): “And so presumably you’re using the guitar through lots of effects processors, or to trigger samples, so that actually, what is triggered by a guitar doesn’t necessarily sound like a guitar.”

Jonny: “Yeah. That’s pretty much how it happened. Ed just played lots and lots of guitar loops, and was just creating wonderful texture, and Thom turned it into a structure, rather than something aimless, that was all.”

Mark: “It’s quite Eno-ish, isn’t it, in a way?”

Jonny: “Yeah, it is. It’s quite speaker-breaking as well. It has frequencies in it which can disturb the neighbours, while still being very kind of slow and ambient, having no rhythm in it.”

Optimistic — On a song driven by a stampeding combination of guitar and drums and Yorke’s seemingly disconnected lyrics, “Optimistic” is a curiously familiar echo of the guitar rock brand of music Radiohead used to favor in their Pablo Honey-The Bends-OK Computer days. But keep listening and those tendrils of familiarity you seek begin to fade away. Yorke drew heavy influence for Kid A’s lyrics from The Talking Heads’ David Byrne’s approach to writing on their 1980s album Remain In the Light. Weaving together random cliches and incidental observations on life, Yorke crafted a lyrical collage that was wholly distinctive. “Nervous messed up marionettes/ Floating around on a prison ship” is a fine example on “Optimistic” of this sort of disjointed creativity. “You can try the best you can/ You can try the best you can,” Yorke sings assuredly as the song winds down, before hitting you with its comforting punchline: “The best you can is good enough.” It’s a song that dares any listener who lacks a sense of peace to form a center in themselves, and within that space plant a seed of acceptance and comfort with who they are and what will come to pass. 

In Limbo — “I’m lost at sea,” Yorke sings repeatedly on “In Limbo,” followed later by musings of “I spiral down,” and “You’re living in a fantasy world.” The song’s lyrics are unsettling and paint a picture of someone trapped between two worlds, struggling to make sense of their surroundings. “In Limbo’s” repeated, ascending chords throughout the song only serve to reinforce its back-and-forth nature, amplifying the message of being in “limbo.” The song rises in intensity and uncertainty until it reaches its conclusion. There, a confused Yorke, threatening to be consumed by a wall of noise and distortion, is seemingly dissolved into oblivion, his voice replaced by a ribbon of electrostatic noise, like the crackling hiss of high-tension power lines after a sudden rainstorm. 

Idioteque — One of the most remarkable aspects to Kid A’s prowess is Radiohead’s progression into new forms of musical expression, including electronica and ambient soundscapes. “Idioteque” is a worthy example of this newfound creativity. The song was birthed from a 50 minute drum machine pattern that Greenwood wrote and gave to Yorke, who then took a portion of it to write the song, harnessing programs like ProTools and Cubase to crystalize its form. According to Yorke, “…there was this section of about 40 seconds long in the middle of it that was absolute genius, and I just cut that up.” The part of Greenwood’s drum machine pattern that formed “Idioteque” was sampled from a 1976 electronic music composition written by American composer Paul Lansky at Princeton University on an IBM computer. It’s a slow, haunting four-chord sequence and combined with the infectious thudding of the drums and Yorke’s emotive singing, one gets a sense of the remarkable new forms of expression their sound had matured into. 

Click here for an ace live performance of “Idioteque” from the Glastonbury Music Festival, Glastonbury, England 2003 featuring, among other things, Jonny Greenwood on his knees with his back to the stage playing a colossal synthesizer machine and Thom Yorke telling Greenwood “faster.”

Morning Bell — A lovely stuttering snare drum and lush organ sounds that expand and contract like the regular beating of a heart drive the opening to Kid A’s dreamy masterpiece “Morning Bell.” It’s a song for a gloomy walk on a pacific northwest beach the day after the apocalypse or a cold autumn morning as the rains paint weblike streaks of condensation across the windows, reflecting the melancholia of the day into infinite tiny fragments. The first part of the song is buoyed by Yorke elegantly singing “Release me,” followed by uncanny, disjointed lyrics like “A glass, a gun, a bullet for us will make/ Everybody wants to be a friend and nobody wants to be a slave.” As the song evolves, that comfort that Yorke lulls you into is upended by Greenwood’s high-pitched guitar squeals like gossamer nails upon a chalkboard and Yorke’s obsessive staccato singing of “Walking, walking, walking, walking.” “Morning Bell” is disquieting in its journey and presents a superb example of a band channeling their sentiment at the time. 

Motion Picture Soundtrack  —  Kid A’s emotional comedown and album ender, “Motion Picture Soundtrack is an epic, lofty endeavor, channeling John Lennon’s creativity on “Goodnite” off The Beatles iconic The White Album. With glistening harps, tender lyrics of “I think you’re crazy” sung by a sympathetic Yorke and a final wall of fluttering sound that dances with infinity before ending abruptly in a musical version of “fade to black,” this song is the welcome comedown and warm embrace that we all need after experiencing an album as wholly engrossing as Kid A

Pro tip: “Motion Picture Soundtrack” ends at 3:17; but includes a hidden track from 4:17 until 5:12 called “Untitled“. This 53-second outro is a haunting, ambient bonus track and is followed by 1:44 of pure silence. After what has just musically unfolded, the silence is a heady thing to experience.

Taken as a whole, Radiohead’s Kid A is a dazzling contradiction of an album. It’s dark and brooding yet light and beautiful. Existential and angst filled yet dreamlike and familiar. It’s a powerhouse of a Radiohead album and occupies that same legendary vein for the band as when Bob Dylan decided to turn his back on acoustic guitar and go electric. The album won a 2001 Grammy Award for Best Alternative Album and was named as one of the best albums of 2000 by numerous well-respected publications.  

Kid A inhabits a position of great strength and energy, both emotionally for the listener and creatively for the band. There’s a space carved out between the opening note on “Everything in Its Right Place” to the final lyrics of the albums closer “Motion Picture Soundtrack” – where Yorke sings “I’ll see you in the next life” – where the intrepid listener (my 20 year old self included) can spend a moment taking a break from their woes. After spending 48 minutes within Kid A’s realm you’ll understand what a marvelous stroke of good fortune it is to be alive at the same time as the six men who crafted it. All hail Kid A, an exquisite work of art for our modern times and long live Radiohead, hands down the greatest band in a generation! 

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