#1 “Everything in Its Right Place”
I still remember where I was when I first listened to Kid A.
There aren’t many albums I can say that about, but most of us at least remember how ridiculously anticipated the album was as the follow-up to OK Computer. Sure, that sense of anticipation is at least part of why I vividly remember putting the disc on in my car stereo as I left the parking lot of Port Huron, Michigan’s only mall. No, the reason the memory is so vivid is nearly entirely because of “Everything in its Right Place”. The song opens the album with warm electric piano chords and subtle bass, glitchy vocal sound effects, and a soft kick drum beat before Thom Yorke’s falsetto slides in on top of the mix. I fell in love with it instantly.
Kid A was an album that featured all sorts of rumors in the hype leading up to its release. But it hit before the internet really became a force in the music world (no leaks, unlike the follow-up Amnesiac). And with the band doing no promotion, including no lead single, nobody knew quite what to expect. We knew Radiohead was going in a more electronic direction, and that it would probably be challenging and weird. Kid A proved to be both of those things, but by putting “Everything in its Right Place” first on the disc, the band let us know that they hadn’t abandoned melody and songwriting in their quest to expand their musical horizons.
Still, the song effectively teases what is to come on the rest of the album. Those glitchy vocal effects pop in, under, and between the rest of the music in the track. There is a lot of atmospheric, electronically manipulated strangeness zipping around the margins of “Everything in its Right Place”, and it finally begins to engulf Yorke’s lead vocal as the song fades out in its final 40 seconds. It’s key that the disintegration doesn’t happen until the end, though, because what you remember about the song is its melodic elements.
Kid A has developed the reputation of being a cold, dispassionate album, but the opening track is full of warmth and emotion. Yorke sounds stressed-out, singing about “sucking a lemon” and not quite hearing “what was that you tried to say”, but placed in the context of the song’s low-key musical bedrock, he feels a lot less stressed than he sounds. The elements in the album’s first song come together perfectly, both as a composition and as a table-setter for the rest of the disc. “Everything in its Right Place” lives up to its name.
#2 “Kid A”
While many hail Kid A as an out-and-out masterpiece, there are still some people that just never jumped onto that same bandwagon, calling the album dark, alienating, and sometimes even too “out there”. It’s argued that there is no beating heart at the center of this digital beast, but, to those people, I simply offer up the title track: the calmest, catchiest, and warmest song to be found here, like a cabin on the top of a snow-covered hill at night with a fireplace roaring inside—that just so happens to be occupied by a robot who slurs his words way too much.
With its bumpy little backbeat, pseudo music box twinkles, and warm synth pads, “Kid A” is almost embryonic in tone, creating a comfortable little aural nest for Thom Yorke’s damaged, distorted voice to rest in. Upon first listen, it’s nearly impossible to discern what the hell he’s saying, although fragments come through: “I slipped on a little white lie” is telling, as is the biting puzzler “we got heads on sticks / and you’ve got ventriloquists”. Yorke has said in interviews that he hid his voice in this song specifically because some of the lyrics were too “brutal and horrible” to sing as is—the distortion made it easier for him to attain a sort of psychic distance from the material. It could also be argued that if this really is the first waking moments of that proverbial human clone, then he’s already got some rather pointed things to say, as if the product of absolute artificiality can somehow instantly see through our own artifices and facades, without even trying. Perhaps he will lead the rats and children out of our homes after all ...
What “Kid A” does in the grand scheme of things, however, is of far greater importance. Immediately following the numerous looped voice samples that help close out “Everything in Its Right Place”, the song “Kid A” takes us one step further by establishing the voice as instrument, not a mere conveyor of words and emotions. The band was already “bored” of guitars at this point, and Yorke—being Yorke—loved the idea of having his voice be decentralized to a certain extent. Suddenly having his vocals be electronically mangled didn’t just seem like a cool idea anymore: it seemed like the only option. Then, by placing such a unique song as the second track of the album, it effectively disarmed listeners from any and all expectations that they had going forward. After hearing both “Everything” and “Kid A”, suddenly the rest of the disc—its out-and-out techno beats, its avant-garde jazz horns, it’s faux-Disney conclusion—seemed to be a bit more within aesthetic reach. Once all your expectations are shattered, suddenly the alien becomes a bit more familiar, and all the more pleasing in the long run.
Yet “Kid A’s” most remarkable aspect is its simplest: the fact that it lifts. Once the voice and bass drop out at 2:53, we are left with mere digital squiggles and the quiet thumping of drums (about to break out into “Sing, Sing, Sing, Pt. 1 & 2” at any second), which soon get lifted up by soaring synth wings to achieve something that borders on hopeful, joyous even. It’s a rare moment of out-and-out musical optimism for the band, and it contains an energy that doesn’t appear anywhere else on the disc. It’s a unique, powerful moment that conquers us with its unassuming beauty. “Watch it” the distorted voice tells us at the end of the track, not realizing that such a demand is futile, for we’ve been watching the whole time, our jaws agape in amazement.