Between the Grooves of Radiohead's 'Kid A'

by PopMatters Staff

24 October 2010


"Morning Bell" / "Motion Picture Soundtrack"

#9 “Morning Bell”

One of Kid A‘s blips—the short spots used to promote the album back in 2000—features a black and white animation; leafless trees spread out haphazardly across a snow covered field with a dark foreboding sky in the background. In the less than 20-second clip, a giant stick figure with arms that swoop down towards its feet traverses across the land while a piece of “Morning Bell” plays in the background. Like many of Kid A‘s previous songs, “Bell” starts off light, slowly building itself piece-by-piece until it turns into a cacophony of cymbals and miscellaneous sound effects. The portion used in this clip is, fittingly, from the latter part of the track. The loud dissonant noise mixed with the sketch-animation makes the spot haunting and a bit mysterious—not unlike “Morning Bell” in its entirety and, to a larger extent, Kid A itself.

Looking at it from the perspective of someone who had never listened to the full track, it wouldn’t have been too much of a stretch to assume that Kid A was going to be one giant avant-garde noise experiment (and, to a certain extent, that’s what it ended up being). But once you heard the complete song, you began to understand how the fragment itself fit into the overarching narrative of “Morning Bell.”

Beginning with a scratching noise left over from one of Kid A‘s highlights, the upbeat “Idioteque”, “Morning Bell” settles things down a bit with a steady 5/4 drum beat, a bass line and a smooth set of organ chords. Even with the addition of Thom Yorke’s lightly distorted voice, Radiohead keeps this path mostly clear until the last minute of the track when all hell breaks loose—a screeching guitar and other sound effects fade in, layering over one another as Yorke’s voice slowly drowns in the madness.

Unlike the majority of tracks on Kid A, the lyrical content of “Bell” follows some sort of story arc. Yorke has admitted to throwing words into a hat and picking them to write the lyrics for songs on this album, and that is apparent here with the random, poetic phrases in each verse: “You can keep the furniture/A bump on the head/Howling down the chimney”. But the song as a whole seems to allude, rather obviously, to the painful breakup of a couple. The idea of “keeping the furniture” and “cutting the kids in half” (as mentioned later on) can be interpreted as arguing about what to do with your shared possessions and your personal keepsakes once you split up.

But what really helps personalize “Morning Bell” is the constant repetition of the words “release me”. Whether or not you have ever experienced a painful breakup, Yorke’s falsetto seems to connect the soul of the song with its listener, as “Bell” goes deeper into a state of complete disorder. The chaotic nature goes hand in hand with Yorke’s barely audible last verse: “the lights are on but nobody’s home/and everyone wants to be your friend / and nobody wants to be afraid ... until you’re walking, walking, walking”. It represents a feeling of loneliness and abandonment.

The fact that we can pinpoint an actual message in any Kid A song is pretty remarkable, which is one of the reasons “Morning Bell” is so special.

  Alex Suskind


#10 “Motion Picture Soundtrack”

At the risk of understatement, Kid A is a massively depressing listen.

Artistically a triumph, it’s born of difficult times: a band undergoing a difficult paradigm shift, a lead singer battling depression, and a feeling that a bunch of post-grunge lads were never supposed to get this far, not to mention know firmly where to go next.

“Motion Picture Soundtrack” is the closer to Kid A, but its conception dates back to predecessor OK Computer, from which it was cut. Lyrically, it’s a fitting epitaph to the isolating struggles of Kid A. Unlike its sister tracks, however, “Motion Picture Soundtrack” feels almost ... optimistic. Sure, Thom Yorke is still the same sad bastard he’s been the whole time: “cheap sex / and sad films / help me get where I belong”. It also gets thrown for a loop with the final line, however: “I will see you / in the next life”. Influenced by the eerily pristine harp swells surrounding it, this lyric comes off neither particularly sad nor happy, but definitely hopeful. It’s more than a little reminiscent of another album closer, “See You in the Next One (Have a Good Time),” from The Verve’s A Storm in Heaven. Like Richard Ashcroft, Yorke doesn’t sound judgmental, even in delivering a bitter dismissal like “stop sending letters / letters always get burned”. Rather, he seems resigned to his fate, but willing to consider the possibility of rebirth.

Maybe this goes deeper (this statement also applicable to the entirety of Kid A). Yorke has said that “Kid A” might refer to the first human clone, putting a different spin on the superficially mundane depression at focus during the first half of “Soundtrack”. Like Truman exiting the dome that has enclosed his life at the end of The Truman Show, the narrator here is suffering alienation greater than the average romantic longing, and, realizing his unique position in the world, chooses simply to move on as a neutral observer of what’s to come.

Musically, there’s a kind of magical quality to “Motion Picture Soundtrack,” and not by accident—Jonny Greenwood acknowledged his intent to replicate the faded sparkle of a classic Disney movie soundtrack with processed harps and vocalizations. After a rather stark first part, with Yorke accompanied by a creaky pump organ, the surreally maudlin harp trills frame things like a classic Hollywood dissolve.

Maybe this is all just overanalysis (this statement also applicable to everything ever written about Kid A, and, hell, Radiohead in general). After all, the tranquil Technicolor fadeout at the close of “Soundtrack” isn’t the last thing we hear from Radiohead—of course there’s a hidden track, and it’s unsurprisingly abstract and electronic. Perhaps the most satisfying thing about “Motion Picture Soundtrack” is that, despite the title, it doesn’t actually feel all that epic—there’s no sense that anyone is trying to prove anything musically or philosophically here. It’s another way to see Kid A, as a very good album, and one that ends not by exploding from its frustrations, but by going to bed.

  David Abravanel

Topics: radiohead
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