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20 Years of Radiohead’s Kid A

1,214 words

Kid A belongs on an end-times list of anti-modern records. How is that possible? Radiohead is, by any measure, one of the most successful recording groups in the world and also one of the most reliable when it comes to mainstreaming alternative and experimental music. Does it make sense to call a record like this one — recorded with digital trappings like synthesizers, computers, and leaked all over the internet — “anti-modern” without stripping that term of its usefulness, or this album of its soulfulness?

The answer is yes. The truth behind Kid A lies in its malaise. Its general attitude of detachment, paranoia, and social anxiety is often attributed to more mundane factors, like Thom Yorke’s status as a philosophizing crybaby or the music industry’s bad habit of churning out depressive wankery (it sells well). Radiohead’s fascination with technology and social paranoia started developing on their sophomore record (The Bends), blossomed into a fully-formed thesis on their third (OK Computer), and entered into the realm of synthesis on Kid A, where their embrace of obviously digital recording technology touching every aspect of the recording process stands in sharp contrast to Computer, where technology is either hidden in the background or treated with otherworldly fear.

The computers, robots, and machines on OK Computer vary between cold demiurges and helpless accidents — compare the Menschmaschine intonation of “Fitter, Happier” to the self-pity and vindictiveness on “Paranoid Android” — all more or less intent on pursuing their own interests. OK Computer, while still a complete record, pursues the individual plots and motifs of its tracks with a great level of distinction — one does not sense the band as much as they sense the compelling characters they have created on each song.

Kid A stands out for its remarkably different approach to these two concepts as refined on OK Computer. The first and most obvious is that Kid A is inescapably an electronic album where OK Computer was a rock album with varying levels of electronic accompaniment. Kid A was not really an embrace of technology, however, given that the same recording techniques that made OK Computer possible were simply employed to their fullest extent on Kid A. Rather, Kid A introduced electronic music as a concept to the album’s metanarrative. The electronica of Kid A is the very first thing you notice about it, both in the observational and literal senses — the first lush note of “Everything In Its Right Place” sets the tone for the whole record.

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Kid A includes far fewer characterizations than OK Computer did. In deciding to take the plunge into full-blown electronica, the band also made the decision to dive into absurdity at the same time. This is significant — Yorke is a talented lyricist who does not struggle with setting the scene, but upon encountering the sheer mystery, the unknown of electronica, he reverted to nonsense. Much of the album’s lyrics were created using the cut-up method [2] (falsely attributed to Burroughs, though popularized by him) both in the songwriting phase (pulling slips of lyrics from a hat) and in production (Jonny Greenwood splicing Yorke’s vocals in real time for looping and distortion). The end result is a record that evades intelligible discussion — “yesterday, I woke up sucking a lemon.”

The band seems to be suggesting two things, both profoundly at odds with the system of modernity in general. First of all, one gets the impression from this album that there are certain things that cannot be known. This can be a broad statement, such as claiming that Kid A is an enigmatic album that can’t satisfyingly be dissected (hmm). On a more granular level, however, one can also suggest that even something man himself has created cannot ever be fully known — whether these are social structures, musical instruments, or songs. Yorke babbles away nonsensically because that’s the only appropriate thing to do in these contexts.

Beneath mere nonsense, however, lurks the more sinister aspect of the unknown. All of the electronic tracks on Kid A are forward-facing things that often contain a great deal of discordance (“The National Anthem,” “Idioteque”), aimlessness (“How To Disappear Completely,” “Treefingers”), or the uncanny (“Kid A”). The sweetest melodies to be found on Kid A are those that aren’t actually made by electronic instruments. Consider the sweeping strings of the penultimate song — “Motion Picture Soundtrack” — influenced by one Krzystof Penderecki [3], a composer known for a renewed talent in traditional songwriting forms that incorporated his experience with the avant-garde.

The final product is an album that deals overwhelmingly with the concept of alienation. Specifically, it deals with alienation from the things created by man’s own hand, things that should be familiar to us, but instead become entities that enthrall and ensnare.

Modernity and its associated advances in technology are a consequence of our own actions, but these systems disguise that causality; computers, distributed networks, and synthesizers may take the human work out of doing certain tasks, but they also make themselves foreign to us in the process through specialization, jargon, or the limitations of a medium. In other words, modernity dispossesses us from the consequences of our actions, which is what causes the final product of our efforts to approach the uncanny. A computer model or simulation is never quite the same as the real thing, and knowing that we were responsible for creating it makes the whole scenario far more unnerving.

Kid A is about this kind of alienation. Kid A is anti-modern because of its remarkably honest depiction of what emotions man undergoes in the presence of the unknown or the unknowable, yet it never makes an attempt to pretend that it’s figured it all out. The most beautiful sounds on this record are those created in the shadow of a man who swam in the sea of modernity for decades before returning to the comfort of tradition. If Kid A isn’t anti-modern, then why does it make modernity sound so gloomy?

Kid A is also an album close to my heart for a few reasons. It’s only a few weeks older than me, having been released on October 2nd, 2000. It was also one of the first albums I heard that seemed to get to the heart of an angst that I developed early on in my life and have never been able to really get over. This album was Baby’s First Enigmatic Record, and it kickstarted a lifelong love of music — and suspicion of it all the same — that led me to where I am today.

As far as the album’s conclusion? Many of the tracks on Kid A have no distinct ending, or their finales are simply a climactic burst of incongruous elements. That’s because there can be no end. The song’s mystery, though no longer ringing in our ears with immediacy, lives on.

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