#4) Radiohead: Kid A, 2000
In a way, it was such a gamble. How could a band like Radiohead follow up their 1997 album, OK Computer, which was hailed by some to be one of the greatest albums ever recorded? What musical move would they make next after reaching the heights of becoming arguably the best rock band ever? That's easy; make an even better album, with more experimentation, that is received by an equally large audience.
Not that this album was "easy" for Radiohead to release: Thom Yorke experienced depression and writer's block under so much pressure. But regardless of the details of process, what they came up with in Kid A is a masterpiece. I experience it as so much more than an album, but as an event.
Although it is not a concept album per se, it seems to spark a dialogue between the real and the illusion; the true and the false; the human and the machine. Kid A may even be referring to a human clone, though Yorke insists there is no specific story or concept driving this album. Either way, the title suggests someone stripped of the humanity that comes with having a name. And how appropriate, as listening we attempt (unsuccessfully sometimes) to decipher what is human and what is machine throughout Kid A.
I have begun listening to this album so many times these last few weeks. The first time, my iPod decided it needed a charge; Other times I simply mis-judged the time I had before other plans or commitments, and was forced to interrupt myself. Finally today as I walked, skytrained, and walked some more, I was able to make it from Everything in its Right Place all the way to Motion Picture Soundtrack. Here is my Kid A experience.
Instantly I’m introduced to the fine line between the use of human voice and mechanized voice, as vocals are distorted right from the start. Yet as if coaxing us to stick with him, he lets us know that Everything’s In Its Right Place. The title track continues the voice distortion, far before the vocoder became every pop artist's favorite toy, and meanwhile a glockenspiel gives the track a sense of eerie playfulness. Kid A feels as though we have lost gravity, and yet a solid foundation is maintained through solid beat, and is not far from our feet; as if we're floating, but it's not terribly dangerous.
It's clear by The National Anthem that the sonic intricacies are calling my attention far above any interesting train companion or view. Can I also mention that any national anthem that includes a Bari Sax honking out is one that makes me feel very patriotic. Unfortunately, I don’t know what country (or planet!) I should be proud of. Perhaps I can consider it a universal-national anthem. All the horn parts on this track remind me of either/both Charlie Mingus and/or Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz. As the overblown cadence draws the anthem to a close, a faint recording of an old band reminds us of what a more stereotypical style of patriotic music might sound like.
The next two tracks combined seem to draw me into an entirely different dimension of time or space. In some ways this track sounds more familiar, more closely linked to Ok Computer songs like Exit Music for a Film, Let Down, or even Karma Police. Still, the song finds itself still more pensive beneath electronically layered sounds. The vocals on How to Disappear Completely sound more human than anything so far, yet his clear lyrics are saying "I'm not here" and "this isn't happening".
I find myself sinking deeper into my psyche and finding the ancient philosophical conundrum: how can we be sure of what is real? How do we know we're not just dreaming all the time? The strings build this question into a climax of cries, while the slow waltz-like rhythm rocks me as if to comfort my questioning mind. And then Treefingers is simply present, with no sense of time at all. I’m suspended, and if anywhere I feel as though I’m underwater. I half expect to see the outside world with brand new eyes.
In Optimistic I recognize that we have made quite the departure from Everything in its Right Place's line, "yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon" to more, well, optimistic lyrics like, "try the best you can, the best you can is good enough". And although Optimistic fades out, it only does so as it foreshadows the In Limbo guitar riff, and In Limbo slides in as if it is the second movement of the same piece, though not quite as optimistic in tone.
Actually, this whole album feels as if it works as one piece. Each track could be seen as a movement that explores different aspects of sound and thought, but in the end they all go together. This could explain why none of the albums songs was really considered a single. With the possible exception of the next track.
There is certainly something special about Idioteque. I wonder if music can have three dimensions, as I find sounds sneaking up behind me, while others face me head on and fearless. Still others kindly tap me on the shoulder to let me know they’re standing beside me. And all of that over a drum machine! I find myself trying to imagine a group dance choreographed by Sonya on So You Think You Can Dance. Oh man, I hope that becomes a reality! That thought (and perhaps the meter in 5 on Morning Bell) put an extra bounce in my step.
The conclusion of the album with Motion Picture Soundtrack offers a brand new instrumentation. Beginning with organ and voice, I imagine I arrive at a dramatic funeral on another planet. Slowly, the track has sweeping harp lines and eventually a distant operatic voice. Repeating, “I think you’re crazy, maybe” over and over, I wonder if I am. Has this album played a trick on me? I wonder if I’ve somehow entered a psychological thriller, and I have no idea what’s about to happen. The track plays on for a few minutes in silence, only to be interrupted with a short return of suspended notes.
Kid A is an album I will return to repeatedly and ask new questions of each time. It has even been listed by many notable critics as the number one album of the decade. I can certainly see why, although there are three more albums that seem to have embedded themselves even deeper into my own heart…