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Maybe Radiohead had to destroy rock in order to save it, or maybe they had to destroy themselves in order to save themselves. In any case, with Kid A, they’ve given their core constituency the biggest, warmest recorded go-fuck-yourself in recent memory, a follow-up to OK Computer‘s artistic and commercial breakthrough that rejects as much of its form, method, sound, and scale as they’re capable of rejecting. It’s . . . really different. And oblique oblique oblique: short, unsettled, deliberately shorn of easy hooks and clear lyrics and comfortable arrangements. Also incredibly beautiful.
I came late to the Radiohead party, I’ll admit. OK Computer didn’t do much for me at first—oh, commercial-alternative one-hit wonder decides to make a one-hitter prog album, how nice. Sometime about two years ago, it reached over from the CD shelf and ripped the top of my head off. It sounded unbearable, like an electrified cage Radiohead had constructed around themselves, but it was a convincing, seductive articulation of feeling completely incompatible with everything: technology, rock music, the world.
Difficult as it is in some ways, Kid A is way easier to “get,” mostly because it doesn’t have to sift itself out of the guitar-band heap: on play #1 I got pretty much the same effect I’m getting on play #35 or so (with more to come). Note, though, that Radiohead’s label was uncommonly careful about not letting journalists hear advance copies of Kid A without a publicist physically present. If this review neglects the high and low frequencies on Kid A lost to Internet encoding, I apologize.
Even so, a lot of their fans have had a while to get used to these songs, if not the recordings. Radiohead tend to road test new material long before an album comes out, and they’ve got a laissez-faire attitude toward live MP3s—there are a couple more albums’ worth of new material floating around out there, and somebody assembled a Napsterable set of the best live recordings of almost everything on Kid A as soon as its track list was announced.
The studio album barely even sounds like the same band. The big difference, and the thing that’s completely pissing off half of alt.music.radiohead: axlessness. Radiohead’s rep rests very heavily on guitar razzle-dazzle, from the Jonny Greenwood ratchet that was the Great Rock Moment of their first hit, “Creep,” to the histrionic lateral-thinking solo in “Paranoid Android.” Most of Kid A appears to have been written on guitars, but nothing on it is likely to end up transcribed in Guitar Player; not much on it even sounds like guitar music, outside of “Optimistic,” which is the one radio’s picked up on, duh. It belongs to the catalog of great auto-backlash albums: Bringing It All Back Home, There’s a Riot Goin’ On, Tusk, 154, To Bring You My Love, and especially Talk Talk’s prickly, spaced-out, synth-drone-heavy Laughing Stock.
Kid A‘s already being called Radiohead’s electronica album, which isn’t really true. There’s live, rude instrumentation crawling up the arrangements’ chilly walls—”The National Anthem,” in particular, develops into something that sounds like a brass band sunk to waist-level in gelatin and flailing to get out. And the pulse of the album still comes more from Colin Greenwood and Phil Selway’s understated bass and drums than from Jarvik-7 breakbeats. They’ve been covering Can’s “Thief” in recent European shows, and there’s a lot of Holger Czukay and Jaki Liebezeit in the rhythm section’s interaction, especially the way that they’ll develop a single beat over the course of a song, altering it gradually but thoroughly. As far as pure electronica goes, there’s a sort of devolved, freeze-dryer-damaged techstep beat on “Idioteque,” and the mid-album palate cleanser “Treefingers” is four minutes of 1995-ish ambient whoosh, but the electric piano that’s all over the place hardly counts as inorganic just ’cause it’s a keyboard.
It’s more correct to say that this is their ProTools album: Every instrument and voice sounds digitally deformed or blurred or processed. You can tell most of its sounds started out as a person playing an instrument, but not who or what exactly. Thom Yorke’s voice goes through more treatments here than Madonna’s on her new one (he doesn’t do the Cher/”Believe” trick, though). “Kid A” die-cuts his singing into wordless streamers and spews them out over a flowerbed of furry synth-tones descended from Aphex Twin’s “To Cure a Weakling Child”; “Everything in Its Right Place” and “In Limbo” smother Yorke’s voice in the decomposing silt of his own cast-off syllables.
Yorke presents his singing as Radiohead’s signature instrument here, rather than as a vehicle for words. His voice is a gorgeous thing, frail but unnervingly flexible, and his guest spots on the new Björk and PJ Harvey albums suggest that he’s becoming a Robert Wyatt figure, raining down his watery falsetto on the needy. But having freed his lyrics of the obligation of being about stuff, he spends Kid A slurring and mumbling, as if consonants have come to bore him as much as big riffs. (The title of the album is not, as it turns out, a reference to Carl Steadman’s Jacques Lacan trading-card set, “Kid A in Alphabet Land,” though it could’ve been—most of the intelligible words are pretty, uh, free-floating.) The only line Yorke really articulates is the core of the album, in “How to Disappear Completely”: “I’m not here/This isn’t happening.”
Well, fine: Separation from self is a perfectly acceptable theme, and God knows he’s good at the attraction-and-revulsion game. But the particular torment Yorke is dealing with is public adulation, from which the band recoil like it’s some kind of gigantic bug. Their tour film, Meeting People Is Easy, presented their OK Computer tour as late Samuel Beckett: not sexy hard work, but flesh-eating boredom and schizophrenic disjunction, with the occasional interview for the sake of repetitive torture. They haven’t defected from rock-out/hooks/radio-friendliness/tour/ videos orthodoxy because being a rock star is over, but because it was devouring them alive. The alternative they’re presenting is pretentious for sure (check the commercial-length “blips” they’ve made for Kid A in lieu of videos), but not appreciably full of shit.
If OK Computer was an “about” file for a 20-gigabyte suicide note, Kid A feels like a handwritten letter from somebody who’s spared his own life and wonders if he made the right decision. The closing “Motion Picture Soundtrack” waves aside the distinction between living and dying, and ends “I will see you in the next life.” Live, it’s straight anguish: no milk, no sugar, an inscription for a million lonely high schoolers’ notebooks. But that’s too simple for Radiohead 2.0, so they kitsch it up with a choir and harp straight out of “The Long and Winding Road,” or more precisely “Good Night,” effectively putting gigantic quotation marks around the song; it’s the one moment on the album where their self-critical seriousness gives way to cheap irony. It’s great that Radiohead have the courage and the resources to fight received ideas about themselves, but received ideas aren’t always wrong.