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Between the Grooves of Radiohead’s ‘Kid A’

Radiohead's Kid A turns 20 today. Ten writers tackle each track (yes, even the bonus blip at the end), and we soon discover how, truly, everything is in its right place.

Kid A
Radiohead
Parlophone / Capitol
2 October 2000

2. “Kid A”

While many hail Kid A as an out-and-out masterpiece, there are still some people that just never jumped onto that same bandwagon, calling the album dark, alienating, and sometimes even too “out there”. It’s argued that there is no beating heart at the center of this digital beast, but, to those people, I simply offer up the title track: the calmest, catchiest, and warmest song to be found here, like a cabin on the top of a snow-covered hill at night with a fireplace roaring inside — that just so happens to be occupied by a robot who slurs his words way too much.

With its bumpy little backbeat, pseudo music box twinkles, and warm synth pads, “Kid A” is almost embryonic in tone, creating a comfortable little aural nest for Thom Yorke’s damaged, distorted voice to rest in. Upon first listen, it’s nearly impossible to discern what the hell he’s saying, although fragments come through: “I slipped on a little white lie” is telling, as is the biting puzzler “we got heads on sticks / and you’ve got ventriloquists”. In interviews, Yorke has said that he hid his voice in this song specifically because some of the lyrics were too “brutal and horrible” to sing as is. The distortion made it easier for him to attain a sort of psychic distance from the material. It could also be argued that if this really is the first waking moments of that proverbial human clone, then he’s already got some rather pointed things to say, as if the product of absolute artificiality can somehow instantly see through our own artifices and facades, without even trying. Perhaps he will lead the rats and children out of our homes after all.

However, what “Kid A” does in the grand scheme of things is of far greater importance. Immediately following the numerous looped voice samples that help close out “Everything in Its Right Place”, the song “Kid A” takes us one step further by establishing the voice as an instrument, not a mere conveyor of words and emotions. The band was already “bored” of guitars at this point, and Yorke — being Yorke — loved the idea of having his voice be decentralized to a certain extent. Suddenly having his vocals be electronically mangled didn’t just seem like a cool idea anymore: it seemed like the only option. Then, placing such a unique song as the second track of the album effectively disarmed listeners from all expectations that they had going forward. After hearing both “Everything” and “Kid A”, suddenly the rest of the disc — its out-and-out techno beats, its avant-garde jazz horns, it’s the faux-Disney conclusion — seemed to be a bit more within aesthetic reach. Once all your expectations are shattered, suddenly, the alien becomes a bit more familiar and all the more pleasing in the long run.

Yet “Kid A’s” most remarkable aspect is its simplest: the fact that it lifts. Once the voice and bass drop out at 2:53, we are left with mere digital squiggles and the quiet thumping of drums (about to break out into “Sing, Sing, Sing, Pt. 1 & 2” at any second), which soon get lifted by soaring synth wings to achieve something that borders on hopeful, joyous even. It’s a rare moment of out-and-out musical optimism for the band, and it contains an energy that doesn’t appear anywhere else on the disc. It’s a unique, powerful moment that conquers us with its unassuming beauty. “Watch it,” the distorted voice tells us at the end of the track, not realizing that such a demand is futile, for we’ve been watching the whole time, our jaws agape in amazement. — Evan Sawdey

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