To live through October 2000, when music’s critical landscape has eaten, slept, and breathed Radiohead. To watch the drama unfold: It Band, shaken by Internet leaks, spiced with non-promotions, broiled by resounding yays and everlasting nays, served up with small helpings of secretive concerts—it’s more a recipe for As the World Turns than a nurturing environment for a good band to plainly release a new record.
Thus, Kid A is impossible to hear it without negotiating this knotting tensions of expectation, anticipation, and judgment. An album with such hype can hardly not garner extreme reactions—love or hate, friend or foe, staunch defense or biting criticism, sides blaming each other for blind faith or myopic misunderstanding. But in what can now be effectively called “The Kid A event,” what seems to be missing is the act of listening—the moment between spectator and art, the feeling generated by song, that something which makes an album speaks about and through its moment, comment on it, and become part of it.
Simple hearing is crucial to the very nucleus of any experience with Kid A. The opening track, “Everything in Its Right Place,” originates in the distance with quiet keyboards, cresendoing as Thom Yorke’s babbling, digitized voice chime in, as if it too has been birthed by machine. (In a way, it has: the album is named after a type of computerized voice, and largely meditates on the loss of self through technology.) You ride and jerk through a haunting, terrified, terrific pulse, as the strange and beautiful vocals become litany, gasping and trying, painfully growing and teetering off, like the words are being channeled through a body that cannot refuse. The climax: “What is it you’re trying to say,” repeated over and over again, finishes on a satisfied major chord and is ironically juxtaposed with how you feel at that moment—utterly confused by what is going on. But you believe, and are totally willing to submit. That effect resonates throughout the album, as Radiohead ebb and flow through style and state: the electronica infused “Idioteque,” the stately and single-able “Optimistic,” the psalm of “Hot to Disappear Completely,” or chant of “Morning Bell.” All work through fissure and fusion, disguising guitars to make them sound like human voices, sneaking in samples, mechanizing drum beats, and speaking about a life both laden with and thwarted by technological agency.
Despite whatever feelings you harbor for these Oxford men, it’s impossible not to see them as an transcendent band—willing to risk their art, their cred, and potentially their fan base to create an album that is languid, spooky, august, engrossing, and tiring. And I refuse to think of Kid A as a divergence, or anything other than an evolution. You can hear its symphonic foundations as far back as Pablo Honey, where, at their best, songs like “Lurgee” and “Blowout” highlighted Yorke’s gilded voice, wrapping it around the guitars like hands clasping together, the synergy creating an unforgettable aural prayer. The nuggets of Kid A‘s paranoia are recognizable throughout The Bends, as frazzled guitar and base riffs from Ed O’Brien and the Greenwood brothers pulsate into futuristic sonic booms, where lyrics contemplate how to survive when one is being unwillingly driven toward cyborgism. Kid A‘s overall effect, its directions and detours, are reminiscent of what made OK Computer spectacular: the coalescing of both sound and vision into an experience so thrilling, so confusing, so moving that it’s nearly orgasmic, and absolutely unforgettable.
Kid A forces its patrons to submerge themselves into the wiles of noise, to work for melody and signifieds, to seek within and find something that wants, needs, and is able to understand. It may not be easy, but music shouldn’t have to be. But for Radiohead fans, who’ve listened to them since they were creeps, know this is where we have been going with them all along. It’s up to us, the listeners and fans, to decide when we’re ready to arrive.