Photo: Courtesy of XL Recordings

The Degeneration of the Voice in Radiohead’s ‘Kid A’

For being one of rock’s defining albums, Radiohead’s Kid A doesn’t have much to “say”. The band’s thoughts on losing one’s voice in an individualistic society take on greater potency.

The first appearance of the voice on Kid A occurs within seconds of its commencement piece, “Everything in Its Right Place”, and it’s as far from an acoustic capture as possible. Digital scraps are hemmed and fast-forwarded, warped and depleted, chopped, and backward-masked. The angles of Yorke’s voice sound like a tape recorder being stopped and started, and the looped patterns run counter to the song’s oddball 10/4 time signature. A vaguely intelligible whisper of “Kid A, Kid A” emerges from this patchwork, serving like an alien hip-hop shoutout. Reverse reverb crescendos into the first discernible words. “Everything …” Yorke begins to tell us. “Everything …,” he says again as if to convince himself. “Everything in its right place,” he says, but the confidence in his voice is far from assured.

The music seems quite well-situated, right in its place, but the presence of the voices, which soon includes ghostly chants sweeping in and harmonizing with one another, makes everything seem out of place. “Everything in Its Right Place” was written in response to the nervous breakdown Thom Yorke suffered during the OK Computer tour. This was a time when everything seemed to be going as planned for the band. Radiohead were riding a wave of international acclaim and commercial success. Still, the realization of the rock n’ roll fantasy nonetheless rang false for Yorke, who fell into a deep depression. At one point, Yorke was so psychologically devastated that he couldn’t even speak, his entire trade disabled by a kind of unconscious self-sabotage. He began to hear his music as little more than background noise, an interchangeable motor amidst the Debordian spectacle.

By this point in his career, Yorke’s voice had become a praxis in own right, an institution of sorts. At times an antagonizing force for critics of the band, Thom Yorke pre-Kid A developed a distinctive quality of singing, modeled in part after the late Jeff Buckley, that ranged from sirenic falsetto to assertive harmonic tenor. Favoring a sweetly emotive singing to the grumbling mockney accents of Radiohead’s more populous Britpop peers, Yorke’s oft-downtrodden material was nevertheless often taken for middle-class miserablism. Like Morrissey before him, Yorke’s moodiness was seen as an affront to libidinous laddish pub rock in the UK. Across the Atlantic, the US film Clueless coined the term “Complaint Rock” to describe a character who listened to Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees”, a backhanded catchall that condemned the band to be eternally thought of as part of some dodgy and dull company.

After the success of OK Computer, a series of bands appeared who seemed intent to embody the miserablism Radiohead were regularly accused of; some even copping a Prozac’d simulation of Yorke’s most drowsily tortured moans. Much to Yorke’s chagrin, Coldplay, Travis, and Muse had fashioned Complaint Rock into a movement. Soon, Yorke felt that he could no longer write rock songs without sounding like one of his imitators. “I couldn’t stand the sound of me”, he told The Wire magazine (“Walking on Thin Ice“, Simon Reynolds, The Wire, July 2001). His voice had become the brand of middle-class discontent, of pasty white guys strumming away the angst over their poor suburban ennui.

His voice no longer belonging to him; Yorke suffered a kind of ego death. Having been unwittingly absorbed into celebrity culture, Yorke was now determined to defy its logic, in part by disembodying any self from his creative output, by decapitating the “head” of the Radiohead and merging himself into the rhythm of the record. The lyrics of Kid A were composed of looped phrases, making himself a hook, a riff, a beat. In a way, Yorke was averting the grand rock poet tradition and turning himself into a sampler, a vessel for recitations of abstract cultural thought clusters.

While Britpop and Complaint Rock were rising on the rock charts, another phenomenon was sweeping Radiohead’s home country — illegal warehouse parties, pirate radio, “reclaim the streets” events, street drugs, and national legislation. The rave scene had formed not only its own musical counterculture but its own black market alternative capitalism. Radiohead themselves had lived through the second summer of love. Yorke was even in an electronic band at Exeter University with future members of big beat outfit Lunatic Calm during the rise of acid house.

By the time of Kid A, Yorke admitted to listening to nothing but electronic music. His vocals were now being fashioned to sound like the looped samples of UK hardcore, jungle, and big beat, which sounded like incessant repetitions to the uninitiated, but hypnotic mantras for those who had felt the soundsystems coursing through their veins. Part of electronic dance music’s danger had always been its threat to supplant the eminence of the voice, but even at its peak the music remained an underground culture, its perpetual alterity precluding any realignment of hierarchies (see my column on this tendency here).

As a pop band, Radiohead set out to adjust that. Just as Yorke had altered his voice, he also persuaded the rest of the band to alter its “voice” as well. Hence, an album where guitars act mainly as background noise, electronic instruments are at the fore, rhythm sheds its backbeat for a skittery take on IDM, odd time signatures reign, and texture becomes equally as important as melody. The soundscaping on “Idioteque”, for instance, is borrowed from two experimental electronic compositions. The lead-in for “How to Disappear Completely” is a 90-second atonal drone while the lead out is a pitch-bent warble that unsettles and disarrays the whole mix, before briefly recovering it for the final phrase.

“Treefingers” finds an Ed O’Brien guitar solo processed into a staid ambient suite. Nascent Sousa horns in “The National Anthem” enter as if from another world, like the radio concrète on Silver Apples’ “Program” before they return as free-jazz ejaculations. The ondes martenot, a kind of keyboard-based theremin used by composers like Messiaen, Varèse, and Boulez, is played by Jonny Greenwood throughout the album, often as the main instrument, usually as a substitute for the lead guitar.

Greenwood explained the album’s electronic voice as an exchange of artificialities: “I see it like this: a voice into a microphone onto a tape, onto your CD, through your speakers is all as illusory and fake as any synthesizer — it doesn’t put Thom in your front room. But one is perceived as ‘real’, the other somehow ‘unreal’… It’s the same with guitars versus samplers. It was just freeing to discard the notion of acoustic sounds being truer.”

On the title track, Yorke sings his entire part through the ondes martenot, which produces an unnatural-sounding robotic voice. In contrast to similar devices like the vocoder, the talk box, and AutoTune, the ondes martenot obscures the voice, making it more distorted and harder to decipher. As a melancholy music box forms the main melody of the track, Yorke transforms himself into Kid A, the titular human clone that the album is “loosely” based around. A swelling metallic noise emits a massive whine in the final seconds of the track, like Kid A crying out his first breath. Yorke finds Kid A’s unveiling to be not dissimilar to Product A, another consumer choice in which the purchasing public can choose among the many “heads on sticks” to select their next child. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Yorke saw parallels between his own lack of control over his own destiny and the wheels turning around him, consuming everything in their path. Once corporate culture conquers all aspects of your life, you not only undergo ego death, but you surrender autonomy as well. “You’ve got ventriloquists / standing in the shadows at the end of my bed,” Yorke says.