When an album has become synonymous with groundbreaking artistic change, you know it’s a classic. Every time sometimes utters the phrase, “This is [so and so]’s Kid A,” one immediately thinks massive stylistic shifts toward electronica and experimentation, but for Radiohead it means so much more. Among all of their nine albums, none stand out as much as Kid A. At the turn of the century, it was the turning point for Radiohead. Their last effort, 1997’s space rock odyssey OK Computer stood on its own as an ambitious project that defined the band as important – if they’d stopped there, OK Computer would still have a legacy twenty years down the road.
But on Kid A, Radiohead threw out everything they already knew. OK Computer’s progressive sound and pessimistic futurism were abandoned – Kid A spat in the face of artistic stagnation and audience’s expectations, presenting a sound that was far more left field, at times abrasive, and experimental. A sense of moody melancholia still haunts Kid A, but there seemed to be slivers of hope. Kid A was anything but a straightforward album – in only ten, somehow cohesive tracks, Radiohead explored art rock, electronica, ambient music, IDM, jazz-rock, and post-rock, all amidst a haze of sound.
Within the first few moments of Kid A, a single, repetitive electric piano melody floods listeners’ ears, forming the backbone for opening track Everything in Its Right Place. It’s indecisive, unknowing whether its a sense of sadness or optimism that pervades this song. Thom Yorke’s absurdist cries of “Everything, everything, everything, everything” and “Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon” repeat over and over, warped and reversed, assailing listeners atop a 10/4 beat. Everything in Its Right Place has a jarring, an almost abrasiveness, but it’s electronica flipped 1080 degrees and sat on its side, waiting to topple over.
Title track Kid A sees Radiohead move even deeper into their bottomless pit of experimental electronica, one of the album’s more challenging songs for listeners more attuned to their art rock sensibilities. IDM influenced tracks such as this and Idioteque, as well as their ventures into ambient music on Treefingers and the album’s outro are highlights of Radiohead’s sudden turn away from the alternative rock that served them well back in the nineties. Throughout the entirety of the album, Yorke experiments with the vocals as much as Jonny Greenwood experiments with the instrumentation. His vocal performances are constantly shrouded and concealed beneath layers of electronic haze; on track Kid A, Yorke’s vocals are so masked, heavily distorted and warped, while on The National Anthem and Optimistic, his singing is warped by ring modulators to form a robotic chorus. Kid A is captivating and emotional, but at times distinctly inhuman and distant.
At first, The National Anthem seems like a return to Radiohead’s rock roots, yet it’s anything but. Heavy drums and an infectious bassline groove lay down the foundations for the track, but it quickly evolves into something uncontrollable. What kind of band plays a radio? On ondes Martenot duty, Jonny Greenword layers in wailing theremin-esque noise to join Yorke’s cries of fear and isolation. It’s a hot mess, chaotic, only swelling and building momentum as a brass ensemble all playing separate solos crash into one another. The National Anthem cannot be replicated – nothing comes to close to matching its beautiful dissonance and inviting disarray.
How To Disappear Completely is likely Kid A’s most accessible and conventional cut, a haunting ballad with string sections and acoustic guitar. It sounds like an OK Computer idea filtered through the lens of Kid A, a track full of indecisiveness, crescendos and decrescendos. Again, Yorke’s lyrics resonate with ideas of fearful 21st century futurism, a dreamy, hallucinogenic sensation. But somewhere in the moody ambience of Treefingers, a sudden emotional shift occurs. Optimistic is self explanatory. Optimistic is straight forward, for a change. Radiohead are doing art rock again, but this time it’s hopeful. All of Yorke’s angst and fear is thrown out the window as he resolves to pick himself up off his feet, singing “You can try the best you can / You can try the best you can / The best you can is good enough,” – it’s empowering and eclectic, and every element comes together perfectly. Kid A’s middle point is the peak of the mountain, and emotionally and invitingly it’s all downhill from here.
In between the catchy and somewhat straightforward artsy-jazzy-experimental-rock of In Limbo and Morning Bell, Radiohead hide one of their most divisive tracks. Idioteque draws on the cold IDM of Aphex Twin and Autechre, conveying such a stark digital sound that complements Yorke’s fear and paranoia of technology and the modern world. Synthesizers and drum machines come together beneath Yorke’s offbeat vocal performance – easily Radiohead’s greatest departure from both their earlier and later work. Idioteque is noisy and shocking, an unforgettable piece of Kid A’s comedown on the second half.
Kid A’s finale is a sense of resolution in every way. Motion Picture Soundtrack is an ambient, minimal, organ driven piece that rounds out the album and puts to rest every unanswered question the music raises. It’s a lament, a funeral dirge – undeniably Radiohead’s saddest song, and possibly the saddest song ever written. Yorke reflects on broken hearts and isolation, resolving to drown himself in alcohol and drugs to end his pain. In its second half, harp arpeggios join his idle vocals, granting the song with this sense of a bittersweet memorial as Yorke ends with a cry of “I will see you in the next life.” Few songs are as depressing as this. Motion Picture Soundtrack is the sort of song that can only end an album.
Kid A is an experience. From start to finish, Radiohead are unrelenting in the emotional and musical turmoil they put listeners through, and they know it. Kid A reinvented the wheel, and in doing so Radiohead reinvented themselves. Electronica, rock, and experimental music would never be the same.