I wouldn’t want to be in the greatest rock band in contemporary music — mainly because I’d have to actually be great. Greatness is not easy to achieve and even more difficult to maintain. Radiohead is the greatest rock band in the world right now. We don’t look to any other band to produce the kind of genre- and mind-bending music that Radiohead has consistently created on their last five albums. (Pablo Honey was a warm-up as far as I’m concerned.) The Bends gave us varied, gorgeous rock ‘n’ roll. OK Computer gave us epic genius in the form of “Paranoid Android”. Amnesiac is downright sexy with all those low-end rhythms, and Hail to the Thief is Radiohead at their most sophisticated-yet-straightforward.
But Kid A, boy… this is where words escape me. Every… song… on this album works up so many different emotions — I have trouble articulating them. But here goes.
Here’s the thing with Radiohead. The band knows how to make all these crazy sounds, and no one’s really sure where they’re coming from, who’s making them, or what they are. Johnny Greenwood is some sort of otherworldly pixie prodigy. He makes music that puts the dumbfounded/enraptured/baffled grin on peoples’ faces. On Kid A, Thom Yorke uses his voice more as an instrument than as a vehicle for his lyrics. And it’s a beautiful instrument — mournful and keening one minute, pissed off the next, jubilant the song after that. So, back to the thing with Radiohead. Together, Greenwood and Yorke make all these wacky noises that sound completely atonal and dissonant one minute, but in the next second fit together to create this moment of perfect resolution.
I didn’t think this happened during the album opener, “Everything in Its Right Place”. I thought, “Yesterday I woke up suckin’ on lemon.” What the hell kind of lyric is that? Then the tension in the song started to emerge, and about two-and-a-half minutes into the song, it suddenly didn’t matter that Thom Yorke’s tongue was singing about lemons. His voice was building and building along with another vocal loop, some understated organ playing a whole bunch of effects to a crescendo that somehow made everything make sense.
The title track is pretty spacey, with Yorke’s muffled and compressed vocals and enough plinky organ to put you in some sort of cosmic playpen. “Kid A” mainly serves as a transition to “The National Anthem”, which just booms. Colin Greenwood’s distorted bass line will rattle your bones, and because he repeats it throughout the song, that hook will be good and lodged in your brain for days after you hear it. You’ll keep nodding your head after the song ends. Phil Selway’s drumming weaves in and out of the bass hook and this rising syncopated raucous continues to build until Yorke chimes in with “Everyone, everyone around here.” The lyrics look innocuous on paper, but Yorke practically spits them out. Backed up by Greenwood’s ambient doodling, he sounds ethereal and angry at the same time.
“How to Disappear Completely” breaks my heart. Right from the first melancholy acoustic chords, this song radiates loneliness. I don’t even know what instrument creates the haunting hook, but every time it offsets Yorke’s voice, I shiver. Never has the statement “I’m not here / This isn’t happening” sounded so desolate. Yorke’s voice is smooth and sad; sinuously wrapping itself around the string arrangement.
“Optimistic” is an abrupt contrast with commanding guitars and drumming centered around the toms. Selway’s pounding coupled with Yorke’s assertion that “You can try the best you can / The best you can is good enough” gives the song serious clout and authority. Here is another song that winds itself up into a tight coil of tension and then releases two-and-a-half minutes in. The band builds the tension again just before the four-minute mark and the only real way to describe this second release is with some sexual metaphor. The guitars chime and jangle, Selway creates quite a din with the cymbals, and Yorke’s voice is the slick instrument that leads it all.
The sampling on “Idioteque” constructs a dark and dangerous world populated with Greenwood’s disquieting organ and Selway’s ominous rhythms. Here again, the lyrics aren’t as important as the quality of Yorke’s sorrowful voice. The track leads directly into “Morning Bell”, and here again the band works the “tension and release” idea. Yorke sings at a high enough pitch that I wish he’d sing lower. His voice and some sinister guitar work build until that two-minute mark and then he puts all of his 5’6” into the resolution.
Finally — and this track makes the album for me — there’s “Motion Picture Soundtrack”. Kid A‘s closer is a slow-burning and languid end to an almost hour-long experience. The chords that Greenwood draws from his organ spread outward like fog. Each note adds to the track’s weariness. Yorke’s vocals suggest his exhaustion and frustration with the superficiality of the music industry. “Cheap sex and sad films help me get where I belong / I think you’re crazy, maybe / I think you’re crazy, maybe.”
Radiohead end Kid A like a band ready to be rid of fame, and during this time, rumors circulated that the band would break up. Fortunately for all of us, they’ve released two other excellent albums, have toured extensively (During these shows, Tom Yorke smiled!) and seem to have accepted their role in the music scene. But, living up to the world’s expectations almost did them in. After all, to be the greatest rock band in the world, you actually have to be great.