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
Parlophone / Capitol
2 October 2000

4. “How to Disappear Completely”

Brace yourself for conceptual whiplash, people younger than me: in 1999, I was so obsessed with my fan site-assembled mishmash of Radiohead B-sides, overseas bonus tracks, early material, and live recordings that I temporarily installed an extra hard drive so that I could pass a friend those songs in OGG format (because MP3 wasn’t always the default file choice) for him to burn me an audio CD at his dad’s computer store, the first burned CD I’d ever seen. This was all because I couldn’t stand the thought of not playing those songs on my Discman. I mention the logistics of hearing “How to Disappear Completely” for the first time because, as much as everyone talks about Kid A as some sui generis Dawn of a New Era, the album was rooted in a bizarre, transitional era for music fans.

I wish I still had that CD; I’ve never tracked down the embryonic, live “How to Disappear Completely” that ended it. You can find many gorgeous live renditions on YouTube, but I’m pretty sure that the version I had lacked the swooning, oceanic depths of the recorded version and subsequent live performances (a sound the band has revisited on “Pyramid Song” and “Sail to the Moon,” but never with quite the same blackly feverish intensity). Instead, the version I had was mostly acoustic guitar; hearing the synthetic whalesong of the album version reverberate through the frame of the car I was in at the time, driving down a country road in the dark, was a moment of startling revelation. There may have been leaks, but I was unaware of them. These days, when friends deliberately avoid listening to a keenly anticipated release until they can buy the physical album, I always think back to that first listen in the car.

But the thing about the ghostly, keening beauty of “How to Disappear Completely”, a beauty that was born out of Thom Yorke’s inability to process the huge crowds Radiohead was playing in front of, a beauty diametrically opposed to the “strobe lights and blown speakers” the narrator needs to escape from, is that such a desperate and claustrophobic song is actually uplifting. “That there / That’s not me” isn’t exactly the most optimistic beginning. Certainly, there’s an edge of anguish to the repeated calls of “I’m not here / This isn’t happening”. But “How to Disappear Completely” is a song caught at the precise midpoint between panic and exultation, between vertigo and flight. It’s a song that recognizes and appreciates the terrifying joy and ghastly freedom of leaving everything behind. If you’re a bad place, “I’m not here” can be reassuring, even defiant; in other circumstances, the song can play out as anything from melancholy to nightmarish.

Near the end, after singing the last actual lyrics, Thom Yorke continues to wail wordlessly as the string arrangement twists into a warped, yawning abyss around and under his voice. It feels like the song is closing in on you like some terminal point is being reached. It sounds as if the song must end this way, by swallowing the singer. And then, as Yorke continues without pause or quaver, the strings recede sharply, then surge in again, restored to their original brightness, the vocals turned into a clarion call where moments before they’d been a drowning man. “How to Disappear Completely” works equally well in either mode; more importantly, it inhabits both simultaneously. — Ian Mathers