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

7. “In Limbo”

Like plenty of others, I had heard Kid A before it was released, having pieced parts of the album together with online leaks. Of course, I dutifully listened to my copy of the Kid A after it came out. I liked that I already felt familiar with the album.

Then I watched Radiohead perform “Idioteque” on Saturday Night Live. If you stayed in that night, maybe you saw what I saw. Thom Yorke’s body jerked wildly on stage, his eyes rolled back in his head. Jonny Greenwood was on his knees playing with wires on an analog sequencer, leaving viewers to guess which sounds he was creating. The performance matched the intensity of the song’s lyrics. Kid A now intrigued me with its unfamiliarity.

When you’re lost, you need a reference point to help you find your way. “Idioteque” was my sonic touchstone. And so it was that at the start of my Kid A experience, I viewed “In Limbo”, the album’s seventh track, as a mere prelude to “Idioteque”, the song that followed.

“In Limbo” seemed to just know its place on the album. The song thrived as an interlude, or as being liminal: it was a mostly shapeless track in the narrow space between the stately call-to-arms of “Optimistic” and the frightening beat of “Idioteque”. They certainly make for a compelling troika on Kid A, with the songs distinctly revealing the band’s various musical influences. “Optimistic” nods to the guitar-driven era of The Bends. “In Limbo” evokes a jazz session (the steady hi-hat, the improvisational guitar arpeggios). “Idioteque” showers on the electronica.

Yorke and his girlfriend, Rachel Owen, were said to be Dante devotees during the production of Kid A, so the religious connotations make sense. “In Limbo” is in Limbo, in purgatory and on the edge of Hell. If “Idioteque”, then, is Kid A‘s climactic Sturm und Drang, then “In Limbo” chronicles the coming apocalypse. Yorke reflects on feeling lost for the first two minutes of the song while the guitar meanders alongside some digital blips. Then it all merges into perhaps the most terrifying minute on Kid A, with Yorke’s wailing eventually drowned out by his own ghoulishly distorted voice. Then listen closely, or otherwise, you’ll miss what sounds like waves crashing onshore. On an album obsessed with electronic noises, the sound of water is as poignant a moment as you’ll find on the album.

It’s telling that “in Limbo” is the only song on Kid A that makes explicit reference to actual identifiable places. Yorke mumbles at the start: “Lundy, Fastnet, Irish Sea / I’ve got a message I can’t read.” BBC listeners will recognize that first line as a reference to the station’s Shipping Forecast, which gives weather conditions for each of the “sea areas” in the British Isles. Yorke’s BBC reporter can’t relay the weather forecast, but that doesn’t mean that Yorke’s storyteller (the one we can make out clearly) is lost, or at least in the sense that you don’t know where you are. This second person — maybe Owen, maybe Yorke — knows exactly where he is. The issue is that a sailor without a forecast is someone without knowledge of which sea areas — which places — to avoid. This person is horribly stuck.

When a third voice comes in at the end of the song and screams for the stranded seafarer to “come back!” a terrifying passage turns sad. The song’s message emerges: the worst way to be lost is to isolate yourself someplace, to settle in, and to lose your impulse to move on. The greatest fear is that we’ll lose our connections to others. It’s a fear as lucid as the sound of waves crashing onshore. “In Limbo” is about settling in alone and being worse off for it. Because just around the corner, on the next track, “Ice Age Comin'”. — Freeden Oeur