Mobiles Chirping, Plates Spinning, Sirens Singing: Radiohead's 21st Century Digital Noise
In the years directly following the rapturous reception of OK Computer, Radiohead wearied from the repetitive touring cycle, interviews and set lists. What to do at a misanthropic low? Dr. Manhattan takes off for Mars, and Radiohead records Kid A.
In 1997, Radiohead's OK Computer accomplished the seemingly irreconcilable twin tasks of lyrically addressing the alienation of a current youth generation (roughly those of us born in the 1980s), while sonically completing the guitar rock aspirations of a past generation (our parents). The overestimated association of OK Computer with Dark Side of the Moon speciously bridges this generational divide, but it also fails to address how much of a gulf that gap truly is. Although the interventions of punk, metal, rap, and electronic music suggest some continuum that links the youthful rebellion of the classic rock era to the way we live now, the cultural shift is too large to keep the relay running. Fittingly, the album's full-scale terrestrial panic is deathly but inviting as it bemoans the abyss and welcomes oblivion.
In the years directly following the rapturous reception of OK Computer, Radiohead wearied from the repetitive touring cycle, interviews and set lists. Grant Gee's documentary Meeting People is Easy, released in 1999, disproportionately featured this ennui and created a public image of disillusioned rock stars. Skewed personas aside, what becomes clear is that, as observers and interpreters of modern civilized society, the band (usually represented by front man Thom Yorke) seemed to have moved from a Douglas Coupland approach to that of Dr. Manhattan. Regarding new material, some of which appears in rough form in Gee's film, the band used most of its on-the-record comments to describe what the songs are not: They're not post-rock, not progressive rock, and not driven by concept or character. These various denials that built up around the band and its approach are frustrating because at some point the whole enterprise must be about something -- after all, why keep making the music if there are no more aims and the returns have diminished to zero? What to do at a misanthropic low? Dr. Manhattan takes off for Mars, and Radiohead records Kid A.
Released in October 2000, Kid A is indeed the sound of beyond, of ascension, of a clean break with the conspicuously guitar driven mode the band perfected in the mid-to-late 1990s. There are endless millennial musings one could interpret, but the band's refusal to define (or even traditionally publicize) its new identity makes hot air of the analysis. Fundamentally, the band confronts the X, Y, and Z generations that it collected as followers in the last century with a year zero for their common musical era. This is a risk that resets expectations for what a rock album should be, and the risk is even more intense coming from possible heirs to the U2 big important rock throne. Additionally, while Kid A boldly refuses to capitalize on the success of OK Computer's accessible sound, the album does push the disturbed reactions to modern life in an even darker direction. So there is also the great potential for the album to be perceived as wallowing in the misery that Radiohead's detractors cite as the band's default mode.
Kid A marks the beginning of a reactionary period for the band. Confounded by reviews and unauthorized biographies that read more like hagiographies, Thom Yorke and multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood, bass player Colin Greenwood, guitar player Ed O'Brien, drummer Phil Selway, and producer Nigel Godrich create, as Colin describes, an "acoustic-based record that has been digitally manipulated afterward". Much more could be written about the source of the sounds, but in the end that description suffices. Taking many listeners by surprise is the degree to which the band embraces what some might call the artifice of that manipulation. Godrich says, "we mainly used the Mac as an instrument to create new sounds or treat things to make new sounds rather than using it as a multitrack device.”
In addition to an inventive use of Pro Tools and other hardware/software, another of Kid A's rich accomplishments is the band's utilization of instruments and inspirations that lie outside of rock's aesthetic and historical boundaries in order to create the sensation of newness. In some instances, such as the Ondes Martenot, even several-decades-old sounds are heralded as fresh. Also, though the overall worldview has not brightened, on Kid A Yorke concedes -- owing debt to Dada -- that words are often more effective as sounds rather than carriers of associative meanings. The execution of these elements could add up to something distant and overly intellectual if Radiohead didn't (despite itself?) retain a learned pop sensibility and unparalleled ear for beauty. Other exceptional deal-breaker albums like Lou Reed's angry Metal Machine Music or Sleep's exhausting Dopesmoker are magnificent in their uncompromised vision, but Kid A's synthesis of the unexpected fringe with traditional rhythmic and melodic points of entry is what ultimately elevates the album to the band's best and a true work of art.
An element that ties the far reaches of the album together is its intricate focus on cycles. Although the album does not have one overarching aesthetic, the repetition of lyrics and chopped up bits of recorded music (in addition to the yielding to digital processes) creates a convergence of meaning even when there is little traditional lyrical or musical development. "Everything in Its Right Place" is not a statement of purpose, but it accidentally becomes one. To look for deep revelations in Yorke's "yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon" and "there are two colours in my head" is to miss the point. The phrases sound like nonsense, and if the listener is not aware of the singer's sour mood following OK Computer, then the expressions are not connected to any concrete experience. Actual context isn't necessary, as the song's concluding, "What was that you tried to say? / Tried to say / Tried to say" expresses both the emotional paralysis of the songwriter and the confused reaction of the listener. At the risk of an abstruse interpretation herein, it seems that the rules for experiencing Kid A are so loose and varied it is not worthwhile to name them. Indeed, the enjoyment of each song deepens once the listener realizes that the woe is me alternative rock rulebook has been shredded.
Moving ahead with its unique manipulations, repetitions, and various cycles, the largely self-contained world of Kid A does benefit from occasionally touching upon associations that lead to what could be called a second tier of appreciation. The title track -- a macabre lullaby/music box number with skittering percussion -- drastically warps Yorke's voice in a way that compels the listener's close attention. The pairing of lyrics "we've got heads on sticks" with "you've got ventriloquists" is an inspired parallelism, and "rats and children follow me out of town" plays on the listener's remembrance of The Pied Piper of Hamelin. Structurally, the song adapts (in its third minute) a technique Yorke claims to admire in other electronic music -- a break that mostly subtracts the song's beat and delays its return, to climactic effect.
In "The National Anthem", an unremitting eight-player brass section that forms around the bass riff is not so different from the guitars that swelled throughout earlier Radiohead releases. Falling even more within somewhat familiar territory is the luxuriant and mournful "How to Disappear Completely", on which strings weep and a bass line gently, reliably rises and falls. The ethereal quality of the song, and its satisfying crescendos, elevate what could have been just another song about how hard it is to be a touring musician. O'Brien's guitar on "Treefingers" takes on the character of a Brian Eno ambient work and provides an excellent comedown, as well as a segue to the album's second half.
Guitars are more recognizable on "Optimistic", another number that evokes the Radiohead of the past. Also, Selway finally has a chance to come to the fore. Not surprisingly, this is the album's highest-charting song on the Billboard modern rock chart. The song's structure is more traditional but festooned with experimental touches such as the Ondes Martenot and the brief but thrilling manipulation of Yorke's voice on "prison ship". The Shipping Forecast intro to "In Limbo" sets up a fantastic variation on the album's cycles, throwing the listener into the waves to be bashed about. While the repetitive guitar lines aren't violent in tone, they (along with Yorke's voice) eventually reach a maelstrom and wash away.
The one track on Kid A that guarantees to get the crowd moving is also one of its more poignant. "Idioteque" is a fantastic example of what Jonny Greenwood calls "making music with music". "Idioteque" resurrects two works -- Arthur Kreiger's "Short Piece" and Paul Lansky's "Mild Und Leise" -- from a mid-1970s LP called First Recordings - Electronic Music Winners. The sampling of small portions of those two pieces, particularly Lansky's four chords, leaves an ineradicable sweet spot in the listener's mind. A captivating contrast develops from the combination of a repeated, brief (in Lansky's piece, ephemeral) tonal section with a pronounced drum and bass pattern. Lyrically, the song could be about the end times or a natural or man made disaster, but again, the claustrophobic feeling they create is more important than their literal meaning. "Idioteque" forms a more direct connection with Kid A's violent landscape artwork than any other song on the album.
A domestic dissolution seems to inform "Morning Bell", in a far darker manner than the subject matter does on The Bends' "Black Star". Selway's drums are key to the song's propulsion, which is fitting since this is their last appearance on the album. Final track "Motion Picture Soundtrack" is perhaps the best evidence that Radiohead cannot resist indulging in the passionate and human, even on an album that was borne in part from a discomfort with emotional expression. Pro Tooling about with intricate beats and obfuscated vocals can manufacture feeling and meaning to groundbreaking effect, but there's no substitute for an organ, harps, and a heartfelt lead vocal. Although "Motion Picture Soundtrack" is in reality no more than the sum of its acoustic and digital means, it somehow feels more human than everything that precedes it. A song with finale written all over it, "Motion Picture Soundtrack" is a source of pathos and a vessel to the transcendence that has been hinted at throughout the album. Death is the song's focus, but the closing chorus of angels and final line "I will see you in the next life" indicates that this is not a depressing leave-taking. Something else is on the horizon. Life and death, too, form a cycle. Ambiguous in purpose, a "hidden" piece of music follows a long silence after the song's seeming final notes of resolution. The nothingness that precedes and follows this additional material it is in keeping with the album's impulse to retrain the listener's ear, even to the sounds of pure digital silence.