Counterbalance No. 52: Radiohead – ‘Kid A’

Kid A

Mendelsohn: Radiohead’s 1997 album OK Computer made them bona fide superstars, and it’s no secret they were not entirely comfortable at that level of fame. So, in an effort to tamper some of the overflowing enthusiasm (as much as a response to it) and, more likely, as a bid at unbridled creativity, Radiohead released Kid A—almost a 180-degree turn away from the sad-sack rock of OK Computer toward a more austere electronic sound. But instead of dampening the spirits of the listening public, Kid A served to only make the band even bigger, effectively creating the post-post-Radiohead world we are now living in.

That’s about as objective as I’m going to get with this record, Klinger. And I’m using the term loosely. I love this record. Those first notes of “Everything in Its Right Place” still make the hairs on the back of my neck rise. The run up to the release of this record was a magical time—rumors were flying about Radiohead’s new direction, and this crazy little program called Napster was all the rage. Rough demos from Kid A would pop up sporadically, but nothing prepared me for what I heard on the bright blue October morning when I bought this record and popped it into my CD player.

But what about you, Klinger? During our last discussion of Radiohead, you let slip that they were not high on your list, so I’m curious about your reaction to their new direction on Kid A.

Klinger: Well, first of all, congratulations. It seems as if you had an experience that’s extremely rare in the rock nerd world—the expectation fulfilled. That moment when a fan eagerly awaits a new release and it turns out to be every bit as game-changing and mind-blowing as expected. To have been in the right place in the right frame of mind at the right time, a Beatles fan in 1967 or a Pink Floyd fan in 1973 or a Pixies fan in 1989 (maybe as close as I ever got, as I think about it). It’s the inside-the-park home run of rock.

You’re right, though—I certainly never experienced that moment with Radiohead, a group with whom I have been incapable of forming a bond. OK Computer remains a wire monkey mommy to me, and although I’m closer to feeling something when I listen to Kid A, I can’t for the life of me explain why. As a result, I’m afraid I can’t let you off the hook as far as objectivity goes. I think I really need to know exactly what’s going on here. Keep talking, Mendelsohn.

Mendelsohn: What’s to tell? Radiohead decided to change directions. They consciously chose to evolve and succeeded where so many others bands tried and failed or came off looking completely insincere. Although, I suppose that would be simplifying the matter a bit too much.

It wasn’t just that Radiohead decided to do something different after so much success. The band had been moving toward this eventuality as their skills grew and their influences broadened. The group’s first record, Pablo Honey, may have been a forgettable exercise in pop/rock if they hadn’t returned with The Bends, a masterpiece of alternative rock that took their songwriting to the next level. OK Computer was the kiss-off to the last vestiges of alternative rock, a treatise on the perils of the trappings of modern life and the final entry into the rock and roll tome of the 20th century. Kid A represented rebirth, an embracing of modern technology, and the first entry for a new century and a new millennium. But while Kid A represented a new direction for Radiohead, it wasn’t completely unexpected or disingenuous. Little inklings of what would come next can be heard in the seams of OK Computer, and their willingness to grow can be seen throughout their discography. Cuts from the Airbag/How Am I Driving EP that came after OK Computer showed the band’s increasing interest in ambient soundscapes and electronica. Kid A was the culmination of these interests, plus heavy influence from jazz, classical, Krautrock, and intelligent dance music resulted in an album was that excitingly different, harboring a bold new sound but still distinctly Radiohead and born of an organic process that began almost a decade prior.

Couple that with the insipid nature of the music industry at the time–the cloying, cookie-cutter pop acts, the dying rock scene that was coughing up bands like Creed, 3 Doors Down, and their ilk—all of that made Kid A sound like an album from another planet. Plus, Radiohead was now operating in a post-Radiohead world, competing with acts like Coldplay who were putting their spin on Radiohead’s version of rock. With Kid A, Radiohead didn’t just hit an inside-the-park home run, they batted for the cycle—the home run was just an exclamation point for a band that had no trouble grinding it out at the plate.

Klinger: That’s all very helpful, Mendelsohn. As I’m listening to the album repeatedly over the last several days, I do find it to be a consistently interesting experience. But that’s mainly due to the atmospheric ambiance of the whole thing. I mean, listening to it has made my everyday experiences (the drive to work, the evening walk, couch time) seem almost cinematic, but the film I’m in is a taut psychodrama about suburban alienation that asks more questions than it answers.

After all, without going to the Internet, I’m making an educated guess that the lyrics to the song “Kid A” are “Gleeble blorga syorul mlaa mlaa”, and that’s not helped by the fact that they sound as if they were sung through a Burger King drive-thru speaker. That’s not necessarily detracting from my overall enjoyment of the record, but it may be among the factors that keep me from forming the kind of bond that you have with the album. Is most of your connection to the album sonic in nature, or are you fully invested throughout—even lyrically?

Mendelsohn: I’m fully invested in this album. But it has been the one album I’ve turned in almost every situation over the last decade. Bright sunny days or cold dark nights, Kid A always seems to fit the bill. This was the album that I turned to in the aftermath of the 9/11 attack, and on the flip side it is more often than not also the album I listen to when I mow the lawn. I smile through “Kid A” (he’s saying, “I slipped away, I slipped on a little white lie” and then some stuff about heads on sticks, ventriloquists, and some allusions to death and the Pied Piper), I bide my time through “Treefingers”, and occasionally I’ll skip by “How to Disappear Completely” (but only rarely)—at nearly six minutes that song can drag on, whereas the nearly six minutes of “The National Anthem” seem to fly by too fast. I can’t really put my finger on why I love this album so much, but I think you were pretty close to it earlier—this album just came along at the right place and at the right time.

Klinger: OK, yeah, “The National Anthem”. Whatever ribbing I may give Radiohead and their tendency toward po-faced earnestness and thousand-yard-stare glumness, this is one of those moments where they really get me. I must confess that I wasn’t especially familiar with this track going into this project, but I was blown away by the sonic derring-do and that stunning juxtaposition of their usual ennui and angst with Impulse-era Mingus horns. Good stuff there. (“How was he not familiar with ‘The National Anthem until now?'” my detractors will say. “I was busy. I am old”, I will reply. “Also, screw you.”)

I’m not sure if I could mow my lawn listening to this album. I think that the combination of alienation and sharp objects could have terrible consequences. And maybe you can help with this question I’m having. You mentioned what a left turn this album is from anything Radiohead had done before, so it strikes me as interesting that I am feeling a lot more as I listen to Kid A than I ever felt listening to OK Computer (and I even went back and gave that album another once-through to check). What do you make of the idea that a more abstract (both lyrically and in the shift from more standard guitar-based rock) album can seem so much more meaningful?

Mendelsohn: I think you’re onto something. OK Computer was fairly straightforward. The songs were pretty much verse-chorus-verse, and thematically and lyrically everything was laid out plain to see. With Kid A, all of that is gone, requiring the listener to frame the album themselves leaving the interpretation (mostly) wide open. If you can write your own meaning into the music and lyrics, you might feel a little bit more than if you were being told how to feel.

Klinger: Interesting. And unlike OK Computer, which I’ve only felt the need to return when I’m researching other Radiohead albums, I think I’m apt to seek this one out more often. Maybe it’ll even start to take on its own meanings for me over time. “Gleeble blorga syorul mlaa mlaa”, I’ll say, nodding my head thoughtfully. “Gleeble blorga syorul mlaa mlaa”, indeed.