Music

The Spiritual Mechanisms in 'Kid A'

Iulia Alexandra Nedea

In this very personal interpretation of the meaning behind the album, Iulia Alexandra Nedea argues that behind the cold textures, Kid A actually tells a story about our losing our sense of spirituality in an increasingly isolated world, and what it means for all of us ...

Many people feel that Kid A's songs are too cold and do not have much in common with spirituality.

The reason that a majority of people feels it like this is because of the musical arrangements and of the electronic sounds which make the album seem a little too mechanical. But we cannot remain limited only to this. Every song on the album suggests that we must understand not only the melody as being mechanical but that we are introduced to a world which happens to be in a spiritual crisis and in search for sensibility. The theme itself of this album deals with the idea of the rigidity of this world. What the melodies are trying to reveal is a world wherein everyone's stuck, rigid, and conscious of the need of spirituality.

So, it would be a little too superficial discussing only about the mechanical side of this album -- since its due is to head us to feeling and emotions -- but it is also a little too much to think about it as being exclusively an emotive album -- since even the musical arrangements stop us from feeling it like that only. So this album splits in two. It splits between the rigidity of the electronic sounds and the search of something emotive and delicate.

"How to Disappear Completely"

It's too facile saying that it deals with depression or mad people. The musical arrangement sends us to the idea of collapse into the void. The lyrics though, attempt to construct the image of someone who tries to play with the pain that the narrator feels. He seems to stay hidden in the back of some walls and at the same time shouting that he is not there. I believe this song follows a dialogue between a man and the reality he is in. He tries to fool the concrete reality and to find refuge in himself where he can become invisible -- no one can see his inner world which is full of grief. It is too trivial to say that this song deals with the idea of being suicidal. This song gives us an image of salvation and relief from what is sorrowful. In our inner selves is where we can always find an escape from the madness of this life. In a way the melody constructs the hollow world in which falls the one who tries to express himself. The spiritual world is most of the times a strange one. It seems that this is the idea that Radiohead wants to share with us in every song of theirs. Every song seems to capture two worlds -- in one of them we can see the strangeness of our soul which sometimes scares us. A reality which we do not always like to see. This being proved also by the Radiohead's melodic lines which are not always easy to listen. They are sometimes hideous, terrible, deformed.

"Morning Bell"

The song suggests a kind of surrealistic image that can be associated with an immersion into the subconscious. What we have in front of us is the image of a being who wakes up from a deep sleep only to plunge in another one. It shows us a human being trying to escape the objective reality -- which seems like a nightmare for him, full of objects lacking consciousness. Therefore his subconscious brings out his darkest fears. This world in which he finds himself trapped looks like a bad dream from which he wants to wake, "cut the kids in half" could be considered the most cruel lyric on this album. We can observe that what he asks to be cut, here, is a symbol for the innocence, for something fragile and delicate. So he cries to the world to cut the most fragile part of his being: to split his interiority. The outside world is seen through the eyes of a deformed being, marked by horror; his inner life is transfigured into something distorted, hideous, something which doesn't have representation in the objective world. There are no more links between the inside and the outside life. This is why the being is obsessed by the fact that he has to be woken up; he is looking for the morning; he is looking for a new light; he wants to be reborn; he finds himself caught in a delirious world -- between the objects of the furniture; he is caught in a world where there are no nuances, where everything's tough and stuck and tern.

Instead of waking up from sleep, the anguish makes him plunge into it deeper and deeper. It is dark -- the self is caught in his own consciousness -- and he cannot escape from himself, from his head which resembles a closed box. However, the second part of the song brings the light which could save this man -- but (as he cries again "nobody's home, nobody's home") he suggests the fact that he cannot reach this light; he lets the light escape from him -- he does not feel like home in his own consciousness. He is alienated. There is a war between the objects outside him and his consciousness which tends to interiorize them and get transfigured by them. There is a war between this being and the objects which haunt him. This war is continues in "Idioteque".

"Idioteque"

"Idioteque" deals with another existential theme: the relation between one's identity and the crisis of conformism. The word which fits best for the theme of this song is Rhinocerization; this is a term used by Eugene Ionesco in one of his plays, and it refers to people who are lacking individuality and become one with the crowd. People who do not have their own thoughts anymore. If the song "How to Disappear Completely" brings on the effort to defend one's inner life, "Idioteque" is the song that comes with the collapse of the interiority.

"Who's in bunker? / Who's in bunker? / Women and children first / and children first" -- this line suggests that people are trying to hide their sensibility, the innocence and the fragility. They are hiding them either because they fear them, or because they want to protect them. People fear that someone might steal that little innocence that is left to them. So this makes everyone start a fight for these spiritual values. The being tries to protect everything he can but then again he tries to hide in his own delirious interiority -- where he feels like home -- in his own madness.

So, this is about war. About fighting with the inert mechanisms of this world, with the great power of the technological and mechanical world which tends to surpass our spiritual life. The fight with what is inert. The fight with the things which steal our individuality and creativity; with technology, things like mobile phones which make us unable to hear our real voice anymore. This is stopping us from listening to our inner voices. The world is getting colder and colder -- "ice age coming / ice age coming" -- we are not able to feel anymore. Throw people back intro the warmth of their souls. Why do you hide women and children in the bunker? Protect fragile things from the coldness of this world. The song seems to be ending with the sound of bombs thrown from the back.

"The National Anthem"

This is perhaps the most alienating song from this album and it looks like a scenario for an absurdist play. There are all kinds of noises and people screaming and among them there is a lost man who tries to express himself and fails. People are trampling over each other, they are suffocating each other -- everyone is so near that they tend to cover that lost man's voice That is why the narrator's voice by the end of the song starts to resemble more and more the musical instruments which are played louder and louder. This is the image of The Scream (painted by Munch); this is the happy parade where everything happens contrary to the normal life; the parade where every voice sounds like a sharp knife or like a hammer.

"Motion Picture Soundtrack"

Here's the song which brings us the image of someone who gives up his inner life and finds relief in the superficial objective world. We have in front of us someone who is tied to the objects around him; the musical arrangements suggest the fact that we are placed in a world where everything becomes artificial (love, feelings). They are just faking the gestures, becoming addicted to the objects surrounding them. But still, man depends on this emptiness given to him.

"Optimistic"

This is the song which continues the theme of the relation between the identity and the alterity; it is not about a relationship with the self -- it is about the relationship with the world. This is one of the most poetic songs on the album -- "Nervous messed up marionette / Floating around on a prison ship" suggests the primitiveness of the human being. How can you remain optimistic in a primitive world? Well ... you cannot be otherwise than optimistic in a primitive world because you tend not to see what is around you; you lack the subtlety of a spiritual observation.

"Everything in its right place" suggests the idea of irrationality of chaos; the two colors in my head tell us that the being is torn between two worlds, and confused and desperate.

"Treefingers"

"Treefingers" is the song which represents a link between the two worlds -- between what is spiritual and what is mechanical. We can feel on one side in the melody something delicate, subtle, soft; and on the other side there is something we feel like a knife or a piece of metal cutting deep inside our spirit; sometimes we hear scary sounds, sometimes we hear sounds of relief -- each side tends to overcome the other. The title of the song suggests an image of a being who is half human, half object; we have the opposition between something delicate and something tough, inert. And again a surrealistic motif -- the forest -- as a symbol of the subconsciousness, where the being enters in order to find relief, to escape. This song has something mystic in it; it makes you feel like traveling through cosmos, or through another dimension of space and time. The self detaches from everything.

"In Limbo"

"In Limbo" is trying to find the fantasy of this world and talking about magic things, it builds the world of a Faust who feels and sees his inner life as something which cannot be read. The musical arrangements construct the image of a vortex in which the self is caught and spinning; we can observe the image of someone just like Faust who -- being dissatisfied with his life -- makes a deal with the devil and starts living under his spell. He asks a magician to change his life even if it will not coincide with the reality. He prefers losing himself in fantasy and irrationality rather than to face the reality of his senseless life. He prefers not being able to read the message of his life, to hide behind lies and masks.

"Kid A"

What shocks most in this song is the way the delicate instrumental parts are mixed with the painful sound of the voice. It may reveal the image of a little baby in an incubator screaming for air. A child with no voice, struggling to breathe, trying to surpass the artificial life which he is condemned to live, trying to find emotions, feelings that could make him human. It could be an attempt to reach his spiritual being. The juxtaposition of the musical background with the hideous voice constructs the image of someone trying to adapt himself to the outside world, which he finds impossible and makes him feel even worse and scream even harder. It is an image of a baby who suffers because of the fact that he is ill-fitted in a scenario. This makes him feel torn between two worlds. Trying to be part of the outside world, the child can only offer it the terrible sounds of his cry. This is one of the songs which speak of the great struggle a being does in order to get to see a light at the end of the tunnel. It may seem surprising, but to me, the theme of this song is about the attempt to reach happiness.

The voice from the song could be also our own personal deepest voice. Thus, we can ask ourselves whether we, humans, are not distorted spiritually, and whether or not we are mutilated inside in such a manner that we cannot express ourselves clearly anymore. Maybe it is the voice of our inner being in the eyes of the others. Or even in our own eyes. Have you ever wondered why people are so scared of taking a look at their own spirit? Maybe it is the voice of the fear that speaks there. The fear of admitting who we truly are. This song deals with the search of self, or the search of something which transcends us. It is about detaching from the cruelty of the material world. And about the hope of finding someone's delicate and spiritual side.

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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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