"Optimistic" / "In Limbo"
This may be the wrong place to confess this, but I don’t know if I really get Kid A. I certainly enjoy the album, and it sounds astonishing on any pair of headphones powerful or enveloping enough to block out the noise of the rest of the world, but ask me what it all means and I draw a blank. In fact, in the decade since I gave it my first confused but by no means unhappy listen, any meaning that I have been able to extract from the thing has been purely external, matters of history and popular opinion that have grown out of the album’s legacy and reception rather than anything that exists within the heady rush of the sounds themselves.
Still, I think I get “Optimistic”. It’s murky and propulsive and knotty, but it is quite easily the closest that we get to a conventional rock song here, and I understand rock songs much more clearly than I can explain ambient drifts and discordant horn squalls (as I suspect was the case for many of us in 2000). Being the only predominantly guitar based song on Kid A, with only the fuzzed-out bass grunt of “The National Anthem” coming anywhere close to a reasonable claim on that distinction elsewhere, is enough to distinguish it, but “Optimistic” is still a far cry from such earlier anthems as “Just” or “Sulk” or even a deranged fit like “Electioneering”. The rhythmic, cycling, Crazy Horse-like groove (though “Optimistic” runs a standard five minutes where Neil and company would have stretched it out to double or maybe even triple that length) that “Optimistic” locks into is not the kind that elicits the cathartic, fists-in-the-air transcendence but rather pensive twitching and evasive ground-staring. If rock and roll is, even (or perhaps especially) at it’s most anguished and enraged, an extroverted and communal art form, Radiohead do their best here to render it the soundtrack to that favored topic of theirs, isolation.
Then there are the words, which, in keeping with the song’s grudging accessibility, are surprisingly coherent in contrast to what Thom Yorke was dishing out at the time. A reference to “living on an animal farm” is particularly illustrative; where Yorke draws a clear influence from George Orwell throughout the band’s discography, this reference is still atypically explicit. Likewise, even the most literal-minded of listeners is unlikely to miss the scornful sarcasm of “If you try the best you can / the best you can is good enough”, particularly when it comes draped in Yorke’s disaffected sneer. It is a statement that now feels, from a backwards-glancing perspective on the latter half of 2000, like a harbinger for things soon to come: a stolen presidential election months later, a decade of widespread disapproval failing to halt an unpopular war, a media culture that, apparently more “democratic” than ever in its construction, continues to highlight the very worst of us. “Vultures circling the dead, picking up every last crumb”, indeed.
Sonically and thematically, “Optimistic” is a troubling oasis in the middle of a difficult record, a seeming lifeline that quickly reveals itself as an ill omen. Still, the greatest irony inherent in a song as ironically titled as “Optimistic” may be just how backhandedly optimistic it is, offering a brief, though hardly encouraging, moment of clarity in the midst of chaos. If there is truth to be found amidst the distorted cacophony that defines being alive and aware in the 21st century, here it is in a quick, potent dose, to be absorbed before we are deposited—here via the half-minute of chill-house patter that ushers the song out—back into a land of confusion.
#7 “In Limbo”
Like plenty others, I had heard Kid A before it was released, having pieced parts of the album together with online leaks. Of course, I dutifully listened to my copy of the Kid A after it came out. I liked that I already felt familiar with the album.
Then I watched Radiohead perform “Idioteque” on Saturday Night Live. If you stayed in that night, maybe you saw what I saw. Thom Yorke’s body jerked wildly on stage, his eyes rolled back in his head. Jonny Greenwood was on his knees playing with wires on an analog sequencer, leaving viewers to guess which sounds he was creating. The performance matched the intensity of the song’s lyrics. Kid A now intrigued me with its unfamiliarity.
When you’re lost, you need a reference point to help you find your way. “Idioteque” was my sonic touchstone. And so it was that at the start of my Kid A experience, I viewed “In Limbo”, the album’s seventh track, as a mere prelude to “Idioteque”, the song that followed.
“In Limbo” seemed to just know its place on the album. The song thrived as an interlude, or as being liminal: it was a mostly shapeless track in the narrow space between the stately call-to-arms of “Optimistic” and the frightening beat of “Idioteque”. They certainly make for a compelling troika on Kid A, with the songs distinctly revealing the band’s various musical influences. “Optimistic” nods to the guitar-driven era of The Bends, “In Limbo” evokes a jazz session (the steady hi-hat, the improvisational guitar arpeggios), and “Idioteque” showers on the electronica.
Yorke and his girlfriend, Rachel Owen, were said to be Dante devotees during the production of Kid A, so the religious connotations make sense. “In Limbo” is in Limbo, in purgatory and on the edge of Hell. If “Idioteque”, then, is Kid A‘s climactic Sturm und Drang, then “In Limbo” chronicles the coming apocalypse. For the first two minutes of the song, Yorke reflects on feeling lost while the guitar meanders alongside some digital blips. Then it all merges into perhaps the most terrifying minute on Kid A, with Yorke’s wailing eventually drowned out by his own ghoulishly distorted voice. Then listen closely, or otherwise you’ll miss what sounds like waves crashing on shore. On an album obsessed with electronic noises, the sound of water is as poignant a moment as you’ll find on the album.
It’s telling that “in Limbo” is the only song on Kid A that makes explicit reference to actual identifiable places. Yorke mumbles at the start: “Lundy, Fastnet, Irish Sea / I’ve got a message I can’t read”. BBC listeners will recognize that first line as a reference to the station’s Shipping Forecast, which gives weather conditions for each of the “sea areas” in the British Isles. Yorke’s BBC reporter can’t relay the weather forecast, but that doesn’t mean that Yorke’s storyteller (the one we can actually make out clearly) is lost, or at least in the sense that you don’t know where you are. This second person—maybe Owen, maybe Yorke—knows exactly where he is. The issue is that a sailor without a forecast is someone without knowledge of which sea areas—which places—to avoid. This person is horribly stuck.
When a third voice comes in at the end of the song and screams for the stranded seafarer to “come back!”, a terrifying passage turns sad. The song’s message emerges: the worst way to be lost is to isolate yourself someplace, to settle in, and to lose your impulse to move on. The greatest fear is that we’ll lose our connections to others. It’s a fear as lucid as the sound of waves crashing on shore. “In Limbo” is about settling in alone and being worse off for it. Because just around the corner, on the next track, “Ice Age comin’”.