[27 October 2010]
In the final episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Jean Luc Picard finds himself traveling through time in three different eras. He discovers the Enterprise that is furthest in the future has created an anomaly that grows larger in the past. That episode could easily serve as the inverse of Kid A‘s influence.
For those that routinely pride themselves in recognizing what a landmark album Kid A was on the day of its release, I’ll take your word for it, but with a slight dose of skepticism. After all, time has a way of shaping events. Just gather a few distant friends and try to recount one specific memory in high school and see the different versions surface.
The biggest issue I have with people who claim to have had an immediate love of Kid A was that at first listen, it seemed to be devoid of the two elements that rose Radiohead out of the limitations of college rock in the mid-90s: the soaring, squalling guitar work of Johnny Greenwood and Thom York’s wounded, angelic voice.
Most critics liked Kid A, but from a distance. Rolling Stone gave it a “play it safe” four-star rating; a half-star less than Green Day’s 21st Century Breakdown and Patti Smith’s very good, but not necessarily landmark album Gung Ho. NME didn’t altogether pan the Kid A, but the review complained that the second half of the album meandered and was the sound of a band that was “scared to commit itself emotionally.” Perhaps most famously, SPIN gave Kid A runner-up honors for “Album of the Year”. The winner: your hard drive. That’s right, in 2000, you could make a better album than Kid A. Or Outkast’s Stankonia for that matter.
All of these critics deserve a break, however. Kid A does not merit itself to instantaneous feedback. The best parallel to compare that album’s gradual impact in pop culture is an album that came out almost a decade before Kid A—U2’s Achtung Baby. Like Kid A, Achtung Baby was a rejection of the band’s elements most beloved by fans (irony-free, heart-on-your-sleeve sincerity, march-ready choruses). Both OK Computer and The Joshua Tree were widely regarded as albums that represented the best aspects of both bands.
Both albums were famous for jarring audience expectations right at the first song. With “Zoo Station”, the listener was hit with kitchen sink percussion, fuzzed-out guitars and Bono’s pristinely clear voice distorted. On “Everything In Its Right Place”, the roaring guitars that met listeners with “Airbag” was replaced with blips and soft piano.
For people who warmed up to Kid A, it probably wasn’t a gradual process. More likely it was one listening environment that helped make sense of the noise and disruption that was going on in the album. And I’d wager the change happened sometime in the winter of 2001 (for those that picked up Kid A on its release date). After all, Kid A seems like a perfect winter album. From its foreboding cover to the ghostly vocals of “How to Disappear Completely”, Kid A was the sound and feel of a nuclear winter. And at least for me, the album finally gelled during a winter storm that blanketed my city. With ten inches of snow cocooning me in my apartment, I had nothing but time on my hands, so I was finally able to give Kid A the listening treatment it rightly deserved.
Alone, without the critical analysis, without the incessant comparisons to OK Computer, the songs in Kid A finally started to take shape. For an album that was seemingly so void of guitars, suddenly “The National Anthem” and “Optimistic” started to sound pretty damn catchy. And the general pacing of the album made it almost a sin to skip a track.
In his review of the album, longtime Rolling Stone writer David Fricke wrote “Any album that gives up all of its secrets in the first go-round isn’t built to last.” By 2005, most critics who initially thought Kid A was either a very good or great album considered the album a masterpiece. The gradual acceptance of Kid A as a masterpiece could be partly attributed to a snowball effect, as critics followed the lead of more influential sites and publications that immediately bestowed the “masterpiece” label on the album. Another reason for the warm-up to the initially-perceived chilliness of Kid A was its sister CD, Amnesiac. After Kid A was released, rumors quickly spread that Kid A was supposed to be the experimental half of the two albums, and Amnesiac would be a return to the more rock-oriented sounds of OK Computer. Any listener who has both albums knows how that rumor turned out.
If anything, Amnesiac was even more experimental than Kid A. And as a result, after hearing the fractured, warped “Like Spinning Plates” and the New Orleans funeral dirge of “Life in a Glasshouse”, songs like “Morning Bell” and “Everything in Its Right Place” are almost catchy by comparison.
U2 played a similar game of audience expectations in the mid-‘90s. After the murky, irony-laced Achtung Baby, there were some rumblings in the fan community that Zooropa was going to be the band’s return to its early roots (read no electronic flirtation). Fans expected a similar return to form for Pop, which, of course took U2’s decade-long experiment with electronica and irony to its logical, if underappreciated conclusion. But as poorly received as Pop was with fans, it made fans appreciate what was once an alienating album, just as Amnesiac did for Kid A.
The fact that and album like Kid A could debut on the top of the Billboard charts in a year where it was not uncommon for a first week album sales to hit the 300,000 mark remains a bright spot in modern pop culture. In many circles of music geekery, Kid A is now treated as synonym for an abrupt left turn made by a band, joining such other albums as Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, and Neil Young every decade or so. Ten years on, the anomaly that is Kid A continues to grow larger.
Sean McCarthy is a freelance journalist and an old media news junkie.