You’re Living in a Fantasy: The Art of ‘Kid A’

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then what’s the conversion rate for album art that actually helps to set the tone for the music on a work as significant and groundbreaking as Kid A?

While Radiohead had previously used music videos to express its running themes of alienation and disaffection to full effect, it’s album artwork that gets across the feeling of disorientation and existential unease that Kid A is all about. Having worked with Radiohead from The Bends onward, artist Stanley Donwood might as well be another member of the band, helping to create a mood and feel through his stunning, distinctly recognizable visual style that works with the music so well. Indeed, it’s telling that Donwood’s images for Radiohead, particularly the psychotically grinning, razor-toothed “Demon Bear” mascot, have arguably become as much identified with the group as its actual songs.

While Kid A obviously stands on its own as a musical piece, Radiohead clearly intended the album to be a total experience that appealed to as many senses as possible, the visual being no exception. At first glance, the cover art suggests dissonance, with the mountain range on the front of the album digitized to make it appear distorted and otherworldly. What’s within the booklet to the standard version of Kid A approximates the experience of sensory overload, full of fragmented, apocalyptic visions, many of which are zoomed-in and touched-up shots of the front- and back-cover graphics. The only organic beings that appear in the cold, desolate virtual landscapes are “Demon Bears” on a snowcapped peak and what looks like cut-out pictures of a suburban nuclear family pasted on a geographic collage. The pictures tell a story that that you want to piece together, but it’s a narrative that eludes your grasp to make much sense of.

Donwood’s work captures the enormous, vertiginous scale of Kid A‘s music, evoking what it feels like losing your bearings in the face of something that requires you to recalibrate your perceptions and sensory experience. While the art accompanying a special edition of Kid A explicitly spelled out the theme of ecological disaster by including information on melting glaciers, Donwood’s paintings powerfully convey an imposing, ominous presence of threat without needing to be literal. If anything, leaving the visual and musical dimensions of Kid A open for interpretation registers a more stunning and poignant visceral effect.

But as Donwood tells it, there is an all-too-real point of reference for the sinister and surreal artwork. On his website Slowly Downward, the artist explains that the source material for his Kid A paintings was a newspaper picture from the war in Kosovo:

“On the front is a photograph. It’s taken looking straight down at the ground, and the image is of perhaps a square meter of snow. The snow is spattered with blood, engine oil, marked with bootprints, studded with cigarette ends.”

“Avert your eyes” by Stanley Donwood. (2000) 168cm x 168cm. Acrylic, charcoal and paper on canvas.

According to Donwood, the news coverage jogged his childhood memories of seeing paintings of war atrocities in museums, although he was unable to recall or track down what he was exactly thinking of. The closest Donwood comes to recreating those violent images is the cryptic red rectangle that appears in the booklet and on the jewel-box spine, which is the artist’s harrowing take on swimming pools of blood used to calculate the number of dead in the graphic novel Shadowplay: The Secret Team by Alan Moore and Bill Sienkiewicz. As Donwood succinctly sums up what would become the artwork for Kid A, “These are hard paintings to make. They are ostensibly for a record that is proving a hard record to make.” There is probably no better way to describe how the artwork and music of Kid A go hand-in-hand.

With the benefit of a decade of hindsight, it’s ironic that Kid A may have made fuller use of all aspects of the CD format than ever before, even as it ushered in an online era which has turned ambitious, conceptual album artwork into a luxury or a “limited edition” product. Kid A was a complete package that combined painstakingly rendered visual and sonic elements, but remember that millions experienced it first as bits and bytes file sharing it on Napster weeks before its official CD release. So even as Radiohead embraced the Internet more quickly and eagerly than the technophobic cash cows of the period — to the tune of Kid A becoming the band’s first Billboard chart-topper — you could argue that the album played an important role in pushing the CD on its way to obsolescence, right after the group maximized the experience the format could offer. Clearly, the dense and irregularly folded booklet that comes with Kid A is something that couldn’t be replicated digitally then or even now as a PDF extra, and that’s not even mentioning the various special editions of the album.

But perhaps the most enduring contribution of Kid A‘s artwork has nothing to do with the specific pieces themselves, but with the aesthetic experience it inspired through a viral art campaign that pretty much served as its only advertising. Art-scarred guerilla marketing took the place of any sort of standard promotional strategy, which was willfully rejected by the band. Instead, art and commerce became blurred in Radiohead’s mysterious “Demon Bear” logo, which appeared almost out of nowhere to become ubiquitous on bumper stickers, posters bills, and, most importantly, online, in so-called “blip videos”. A Kid A CD might have almost been an anachronism by the time it made it to soon-to-be-extinct record stores, but part of the album’s lasting significance is that Radiohead stayed ahead of the curve and redefined what art in the new millennium could be, be it popular or high-brow or some hybrid of both. Indeed, the legacy of Kid A is as an act of art that didn’t just reflect its age, but helped to shape the future, which is something you can say for its visual elements as much as the music.