What’s that Radiohead song where they eschew a God-given mastery of songcraft for marginal electronic-based mediocrity?
—Eli Braden (@EliBraden) on Twitter
“Kid A received generally positive reviews from music publications…”
—Wikipedia entry on Kid A
For a moment, writer Chris Norris of Spin had the argument almost right. However, as it so often happens in the world of clickbait, whatever persuasive argument he might have made was undone by three attention-grabbing words: “Radiohead kinda blow.”
Those three words form a contrarian, provocative cloud over the remainder of Norris’ 2009 article, tantalizingly titled, “MYTH No. 1: Radiohead Can Do No Wrong”. Though he expresses disdain for the music Radiohead made following its exalted 2000 LP Kid A, he never outright dismisses the band’s entire discography. His view of Radiohead’s output in the ‘00s is best summed up in this paragraph:
At last year’s  All Points West festival, as their thin, stubbly faces filled massive video screens, Radiohead began their set with In Rainbows’ “15 Step”: an open-ended groove with a quirky electro beat, two-chord motif, and airy, abstract singing. Then they did the 2001 song “Morning Bell/Amnesiac”: an open-ended groove with a quirky electro beat, two-chord motif, and airy, abstract singing. Then they kept going, one groovy tone poem into another, masterfully weaving beats, sound-washes, and misty vocals into an immersive experience of sound, light, pattern, rhythm, and utter, paralyzing boredom. By the encore, it was obvious what Radiohead had become: an exceptionally well-dressed jam band. That you can’t even dance to.
Essentially, Norris’ thesis is that while Radiohead had great songwriting success in the ‘90s with records like The Bends and OK Computer, following their turn toward electronic experimentation, the music became less substantive and far more navel-gazing. Juxtaposing the performances of “15 Step” and “Morning Bell/Amnesiac” at All Points West with the performance of the Bends essential “Just”, Norris notes a sharp change in the audience dynamic, writing, “It was like a toggle switch transformed the crowd from a group of happy, attentive young men and women to an ecstatic mob. ‘Pumped by an oldie’ doesn’t come close; this was now a different audience.”
Were I to have been in attendance at that show, I probably would have felt the same way. Aside from the unsubstantiated declaration of “Radiohead kinda blow” at the top of the article, I overall agree with Norris’ key thesis. I also endorse his summary of Kid A, which he describes as “a deft, sometimes beautiful experiment in electronica-based songwriting.” While I don’t hate Kid A, for me it’s a far less compelling representation of the band’s talents than The Bends and OK Computer.
In my view, In Rainbows is the last overall success Radiohead had; while there is in that album plenty of the “airy” and “abstract” stuff that has come to dominate the group’s sonic (see the forgettable 2011 release The King of Limbs), there is also some genuine rock there, as well. The garage rock vibes of “Bodysnatchers” are much welcome after the middling Hail to the Thief. “Nude” is, without a doubt, the most beautiful thing Radiohead has written.
There are beautiful things on Kid A, as well. The chords on “Everything in its Right Place” are intoxicating. The free jazz propulsion of “The National Anthem” displays the kind of groove that rock bands the world over try to emulate. But Kid A has never represented Radiohead at its best for me, which is why both the glut of worshipful reviews and thinkpieces about the album and the flame war “rebuttals” to the album’s fans bother me.
Either response, be it unencumbered praise (see the infamous Pitchfork review of the record) or unbridled loathing (see Noisey‘s bitter lament “Radiohead Is for Boring Nerds”), only stands to reinforce the very serious nature of the LP. The former establishes Kid A‘s importance; the latter, in its scorched-earth attempts to counter a dominant narrative, only reinforces the strength of those narratives.
“Narrative” is the key word to focus on, because the question is too often reduced to a simple “is the music good or bad” debate. To be clear: I have no illusions that my thoughts on the record are a drop in a voluminous ocean. My lukewarm response has to fight against almost 15 years of critical adoration. There’s no way Kid A is going to be viewed as anything but a major artistic achievement. (Even PopMatters ran a lengthy, multi-part special section celebrating the album’s ten-year anniversary.) Since I don’t hate the album, this isn’t a point of major concern. However, what is disconcerting for me, as someone who very much enjoys The Bends and OK Computer, is the narrative role the praise of Kid A creates.
Whether one loves, hates, or mildly tolerates Kid A, although the first is indisputably the most prevalent, there is one undeniable fact: it changed the direction of Radiohead. Following OK Computer, which itself amalgamated the band’s guitar-centric songwriting style with influences from krautrock, progressive rock, and electronic music, Kid A is indeed a stunner in terms of the instruments that make up its songs. The only real guitar-driven track here is “Optimistic”, which lacks the staying power and visceral nature of riffs like the ones in “Just” or the key riff in “Paranoid Android”.
The most energetic tunes on the album are “The National Anthem” and “Idioteque”; the former’s propulsion comes from its stellar bassline, the latter its electronic drumbeat. Of course, that doesn’t make either track bad; “The National Anthem” is one of my favorite Radiohead songs. But these choices in instrumentation did signal in 2000 that Radiohead was going “post-rock” (not to be confused with the genre of the same name), moving beyond the admittedly impressive achievements it had achieved with The Bends and OK Computer.
To borrow the wise words of Grayson Haver Currin, an album like OK Computer “creates a de facto albatross for the band that’s made it: Hit repeat, and you’ve made yourself obsolete.” As fine an LP as that one is, had Radiohead been content to churn out OK Computer 2: Electric Boogaloo, its status as rock’s avant-garde wunderkinds would have no doubt been put into question. For that reason, I think it’s fairly uncontroversial to say that Kid A is not the sound of change for change’s sake.
Nevertheless, while it is indisputable that Kid A changed Radiohead, the question is properly phrased as: “To what extent did the album change the band for the better?” Insofar as, for me, nothing following OK Computer comes close to topping either that record or The Bends, the answer is that the change was not for better.
Much of Kid A displays interesting ideas, but so few lack the mark of the band responsible for tunes like “Paranoid Android”, a track that both showcases Radiohead’s rock prowess and its creative edge. “Treefingers” makes it clear that Yorke has given a few Brian Eno records a spin, but little about it is interesting on its own terms. The kitchen sink rhythmics of “In Limbo” make the song sound exactly like what its title implies. And while Yorke’s sometimes whiny tenor often serves the group well, on “How to Disappear Completely” he sounds like he’s on the verge of doing just that, his somnambulatory delivery serving as a dose of musical NyQuil. Even the driving riff of “Optimistic” starts to lose its energy around the song’s halfway point.
Already, the rebuttal to my claims here should be evident, given that it hangs over the entire narrative of what supposedly makes Kid A great: “That’s what Radiohead was trying to do.” In Mark Richardson’s paragraphs on Kid A for Pitchfork‘s Top 200 Albums of the ‘00s feature, he writes,
[Kid A displays] thoughts about millennial techno-dread; fragmentation, broken transmissions, garbled communication; the feeling of helplessness that comes from having access to so much information about the world while not having the power to change any of it; the subtle and dramatic ways that electronics are altering our landscape and our consciousness.
The word “alienation” is often used in describing Kid A. For many, the record stands as the musical manifestation of the Y2K collective consciousness, terrified about the new millennium and unsure of what to do with the growing proliferation of technology. This thing called the internet was suddenly taking up more and more of our lives. Some people predicted the end of days.
Because of these fears, the argument goes, Kid A is the perfect artistic response to the signs of the times. As Timothy Gabriele argues in his article, “What Was It That You Tried to Say? The Degeneration of the Voice in Kid A”, the ways in which Yorke’s voice is manipulated throughout the album stand as signposts for the ways in which the new millennium was changing the very nature of the voice itself.
In describing “How to Disappear Completely”, Ian Mathers suggests in “Between the Grooves of Radiohead’s ‘Kid A’” that the song “recognizes and appreciates the terrifying joy and ghastly freedom of leaving everything behind”, a fitting way to describe the feelings of many people hesitantly stepping into the year 2000. Jesse Cataldo of Slant writes that the record is “a chillingly detached work that signaled a newfound ambivalence with the omnipresence of machines.” (”The 100 Best Albums of the Aughts”, 1 February 2010)
Even those who would agree with David Fricke in saying that Kid A “is pop”, it’s undeniable that it’s an especially chilly pop album. However, as the long-standing argument goes, that’s the point of the music: just as art holds a mirror up to society, Kid A reflects the vacillating emotions of the beginning of the Aughts. This narrative is near impossible to avoid when talking about the record, as well as to a lesser extent Amnesiac, which followed a year later. It’s no reach of an interpretation by any means, but the grandiloquence with which this narrative is argued has always seemed disproportionate. This is so for at least two reasons.