KID A: A GROWN-UP CLASSIC
Author: Bruce Jenkins Date Posted:25 June 2021
Sonically daring and lyrically challenging, Radiohead’s follow-up to the hugely successful OK Computer was the result of much suffering. Thom Yorke endured a psycho-emotional crisis during the extensive world tour following OK Computer’s success, while the whole band agonised about their 'direction'. That they managed to both renew their sound and create an album that mesmerises many says something powerful about the creativity and determination of the musicians. Welcome to the introspective, electronic world of the fourth Radiohead album, Kid A.
How did this record of alienation and chilly (as distinct from chilled) rhythms top the UK and US charts and achieve platinum status in half a dozen countries, including Australia? It was no flash in the pan either; in 2020 Rolling Stone magazine ranked it at #20 in its list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
Part of the answer lies in Radiohead’s re-animation of electronica. The eleven tracks of Kid A are painted with manipulated sounds using a range of electronic instruments from classics such as the Prophet 5 to the rare Ondes Martenot, developed in 1928. Indeed, this is much more a keyboard/synthesiser album than a traditional 'rock' album, in keeping with Yorke’s disenchantment with rock and roll. It is also an oddly retro-progressive record, in that it takes sounds from past decades— notably independent German music of the 70s, aka krautrock—and re-invents them for a new century.
The LP opens with the keening beauty of "Everything In Its Right Place". After a delicate electric piano introduction that could be from the debut album by French electronica duo Air, Thom Yorke voices his desperation and isolation. The melody is elusive but hypnotic, and as the intensity slowly builds you realise this is not your average chart album, nor rock music in its customary form. Layers, echoes, repetition, deconstruction; this is an experimental LP that beguiles while it disrupts.
Vocals on the title track are so compressed as to be unintelligible, which may not be a bad thing as they are pretty miserable. Yet the percussive, marimba-like sounds of the music are cheerful; chirpy even. Contrasts abound: the voice sounds tortured while the snare drum has an off-kilter sprightliness somewhere between marching and skipping.
Part of the power of Kid A is its insistence you enter its’ world; it may not be all sunbeams and rainbows but it is an intense and vivid landscape. Nowhere is this seen more powerfully than in "The National Anthem", driven by an hypnotic baseline that Yorke wrote as a sixteen year old. The collapse/incursion of the crazy brass horns is often described as 'free jazz' but it also very strongly evokes early recordings by German iconoclasts Faust. Brilliant, potent stuff, if not exactly music to play when staid relatives come for afternoon tea.
Kid A is an album where each track invites—indeed demands—exploration. It is a record to immerse yourself in, one that continues to deliver surprises as layers are revealed. Moments of beauty ("Motion Picture Soundtrack", for example) contrast with driving beats ("Optimistic"). There is anger and confusion ("Morning Bell"), yet the music unclenches the human angst. There is even an instrumental, Radiohead’s first; "Treefingers" could be a highlight from an ambient soundscape by Brian Eno. Such contrasts give Kid A a quiet, insistent momentum. Despite the downbeat nature of the lyrics, the album as a whole offers renewal, encouraging us to go forward, to continue on the quest even though sadness and loss abound. As the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow observed in his famous poem "The Rainy Day" (1842),
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.
Kid A is a reliable and strangely reassuring companion for a grey day.
© Bruce Jenkins 2021