It’s probably no coincidence that 2000 saw the release of Coldplay’s Parachutes, U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind and Radiohead’s Kid A, all within the course of about two months. U2 has frequently been cited as a precursor to Radiohead, their earnest and epic songwriting providing a foundation from which the band built new settlements on The Bends, while Coldplay merely took what Radiohead did with The Bends and made it Top 40 and date-night viable. These two records sound fairly similar and, while neither tread new ground by any means, both eventually outsold Kid A. Radiohead is arguably the bridge between these two bands, or was at some point in the ’90s, it just took some time to catch up. But by the time this release date triangle occurred, Radiohead had tested their artistic limits only to find that they stretch into other stratospheres.
“Reinvention” is a word specifically saved for achievements such as Kid A. Though hearing OK Computer for the first time was nothing short of revelation for me, personally, there was a clear progression from what they had built up with The Bends. This was something different, something strange, alien and beautiful. I could wax nostalgic about hearing Kid A for the first time on its day of release, during my freshman year in college, its foreign beauty mirroring my own sense of anxiety and bewilderment, but I think I pretty much just summed it up right there, and will choose to avoid sounding like an asshole from this point further. I will say, however, that it was one of the last few records I bought the day of its release and subsequently obsessed on in the weeks thereafter, Amnesiac and Hail to the Thief remaining only moderately close behind. Part of this can be attributed to early downloading and my own becoming a music writer, but part of what made the anticipation and release of Kid A such a clearly monumental event was just how brilliant an album it truly was and still is. Ten months into a new millennium and Radiohead released the album of the decade, a title I strongly believe the album still holds.
Kid A is most certainly a ‘rock’ record, though not in the same way that The Bends or OK Computer are rock records. The album progresses in a manner such that each song sounds completely different from the one that precedes it, yet, somehow, they make such a cohesive whole, it creates the mythical musical journey that so many Pink Floyd fans have made terribly cliché by now. With Kid A, that journey is both surreal and ominous, otherworldly and gorgeous, yet frequently horrifying. While there are still some who remain ambivalent about much of the band’s work, particularly in this decade, I have known few who didn’t fall under this album’s spell, and for good reason.
The music of Kid A is incredibly dense, even more so than that of OK Computer, part of which may stem from a stronger presence of electronics and a darker ambience. Opening track “Everything In Its Right Place,” though fairly simple in terms of its opening arrangement, is easily one of the heaviest songs in the band’s repertoire, a warm albeit unsettling synth crafting an impenetrable sonic force field, as well as impenetrable lyrics (“yesterday I woke up sucking on a lemon“). The title track, meanwhile, is lighter yet more disturbing fare, childlike in tone, yet sputtering like an Aphex Twin construction, as Thom Yorke sings through electronic effects. By track three, “The National Anthem,” Radiohead has already spun off into another course, abandoning IDM tendencies for distorted funk, filtered through psychedelic squalls of feedback. Yorke still sings through effects filters, declaring “everyone around here…everyone has got…the fear” before a seasick horn section erupts in both deep ass grooves and scary, paranoid caterwauling. This then bleeds into “How To Disappear Completely,” a hazy, outer space acoustic track that finds Yorke singing “I’m not here/ this isn’t happening.” In an eerie twist of lyrical continuity, during the chaotic electronic glitch dance of “Idioteque,” Yorke shrieks “this is really happening!”
Along with “Iditoteque,” alternative radio took to “Optimistic” as a single, though it wasn’t really released as such. Nonetheless, its dirty rock grooves made it an ideal choice, deep tom tom thumps driving the anthemic masterpiece. Yorke sings “you can try the best you can/ try the best you can/ the best you can is good enough” only to find the song growing in portentousness. Electronics escalate, distortion thickens, and after the second chorus, the first appearance of a snare marks a descent into an awesome but chilling breakdown. “In Limbo” mirrors its title perfectly, spiraling into a nebulous opacity, layers of guitars and vocals tumbling over one another, detached and bleak, but magnificent. By this point, “Morning Bell” almost sounds upbeat, particularly as Yorke sweetly pleas “release me.” Still, this song isn’t immune to the pervading creepiness of the album, it merely triumphs because of it, as Yorke channels Midas and sings “cut the kids in half,” which almost sounds like “put the kids to bed,” which makes it doubly creepy. “Motion Picture Soundtrack” closes Kid A, a simple accordion progression taking the place of the icy electronics and disorienting guitar effects that characterize the preceding nine tracks. It’s an ornate and symphonic track, practically Björk-like in its alien balladry.
It was suggested around the time of its release that Kid A‘s concept revolved around the first cloned human and his experiences, though it’s difficult to draw any logical conclusions from Thom Yorke’s dense and cryptic lyricism. It’s not the reflection of consumerist society and advancement of technology that The Bends and OK Computer were. It doesn’t contain the politically-motivated bile that inspired Amnesiac and Hail to the Thief. It exists in its own distant time and place, a dark and frightening present that sounds like the future. It’s ghostly and paranormal. To hear it is to experience it, to tap unknown thoughts and emotions and to feel music in entirely new ways.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.