Change is a very strange thing. I’ve never been too partial to so much of it at once. Of course, I could attribute this to me being a big ol’ J (judging.) I can quite vividly recall being ten years old, and being forced to deal with the notion of moving from Alexandria, VA to East Lansing, MI. The absolute frustration of uprooting and beginning again is, even a few weeks shy of seven years later, still just as potent as it was in the Virginia winter of 2004. Me and my mother were less on board with the idea than my sister or stepdad.
In retrospect, moving to Michigan was probably the best thing that every happened to me. I only say this because I am legitimately frightened by thinking about taking a different path in my life. I’m not afraid of change that has yet to come. If it’s necessary, I will understand and cooperate. On the other hand, if the change in question has no real lasting purpose, then I’ll likely be indignant initially, only to grow apathetic very quickly. In fact, more people are frightened by the future, by the unknown complexities that have yet to be endowed upon humanity, more than what has already transpired. This actually seems illogical to me, but it really isn’t as nonsensical as I’d like to believe. I guess that’s the way it is. Normal people fear change, my sister is disturbed by Frank, the mysterious, time traveling rabbit from Donnie Darko, and I’m terrified of contemplating the fact that my life could have, at any time, been vastly unrecognizable had something skewed from the timeline that has already transpired.
Let’s get something out of the way immediately. Radiohead, a collection of five Brits that are prominent in the world of modern music, have proved to be the greatest band in the world right now. They are The Beatles of modern music. Not only are they a incredibly well rounded group that sound great, they have revolutionized and inspired much of the music around today. This is not an opinion based bit of credit. It’s absolutely true. In fact, they’re take on alternative music is unlike any other artist. Do not be sad. Two other Radiohead albums will appear on this list. It is this album, Kid A among other things, that is responsible for the image Radiohead has cultivated for themselves today.
In 1997, Radiohead released OK Computer. It was a departure from their very rock oriented masterpiece The Bends. Instead of another face melting collection of songs depicting loneliness, Radiohead elected a darker, more ambient atmosphere to convey themes about how modern life and the government are killing us. Few albums have garnered more acclaim, and even Radiohead was surprised by the mania surrounding their tour de force. So great was the impact of OK Computer, it affected the band as well. The success of OK Computer nearly drove a permanent wedge between the group. After fleshing out the greatness of OK Computer by touring like crazy, and becoming the biggest band in the world, Radiohead took a year off. They needed it. When it was heard that they had gotten back to work, everyone assumed that they would be getting another epochal alternative rock album. Suffice it to say, that’s not what anyone got.
The first moments of Kid A are likely to be the most perplexing. It starts off with the song “Everything in Its Right Place” is a very reserved track. Anyone expecting an “Airbag” or “Planet Telex” kind of opener would be very confused, and maybe even disappointed by this track. Not to create an oxi moron, but the minimalistic nature of this track is so impacting. It’s also one of the most interesting ways to start off an album. Most albums start off with a very large and gaudy opener to hook a listener. In true Radiohead fashion, there’s no such promise with this song. Its eerie calmness is what grabs a person’s ears, instead of destroying them. What’s fascinating is how that initial solemnity builds into something else. Like a caged animal, it wants to break out, but settles right before the storm. Now, many critics and bloggers will list this song as one of Radiohead’s best. I do not agree that this assessment is accurate. While there are few Radiohead songs that are “bad,” most are quite phenomenal. However, I can concede to the notion that there is no song by anyone, except maybe Radiohead themselves, that is like this song. I’ve listened to thousands of songs many times, but I’ve yet to come across one as unique as “Everything in Its Right Place.” Perhaps it’s because Radiohead does something with this song that it does with all of Kid A. Each title says exactly what the song will sound like, but with that slight Radiohead edge. Everything is in its right place, but in a very Thom Yorke-esque sense.
Proceeding the opener is the title track, “Kid A.” This is personally my favorite song off of the album. What it amounts to is some melody played with I don’t know what. I want to say it sounds akin to either a music box or dying on Kid Icarus. This melody is played over an electronic percussion part, as well as some distorted, incoherent lyrics spouted by what sounds like anyone. It’s very energetic and upbeat, but still reserved. It has a very childlike nuance to it, which likely comes from the death of Pit. There’s something so engrossing about it. I’d say that there’s feeling to it. The Radiohead song that shows emotion without any discernible speech would be very much in character for the gang. This very melodic, almost fun interlude plays off of its predecessor perfectly, and segues into something much different.
This is where the animal breaks out. “The National Anthem” is so different than the previous two tracks. Such a leap should not work so well, but it does. Where the two tracks were very electronic and mellow in atmosphere, here comes the same kind of wrath and sinister feel of “Paranoid Android,” but jazzier and more diabolic than brooding. The Ondes Martenot, the aggressive drums, the more chaotic drum section all play over a repetitive bass line that is equally as haunting. Yorke’s vocals echo as if he’s spitting into an aluminum tunnel. It’s a devil whose chaos completely contrasts the unobtrusiveness of the first two tracks. Ironically, it’s the bedlum that keeps headphones on. What would otherwise be a boring album becomes something transcendent and unexpected. In essence, the track is brilliant, and so is its spot on the record.
What follows is perhaps the most normal song on the whole album, which is “How to Disappear Completely.” This song is a lot like “Exit Music (for a Film)” but a little better. Something to take note of is that Thom Yorke suffered from writers block when composing lyrics for Kid A. Instead, he took discarded lyrics, put them on little pieces of paper, and drew them out of a hat for each song. I suspect that this is responsible for the prevalent use of lyrical repetition throughout the album. I’m certain that “How to Disappear Completely” is one of the more frugal songs in terms of Thom Yorke. There are few lyrics, and Yorke does not use as wide a range as he does for so many of his songs. Perhaps it’s the profundity of his words, or maybe its the same mystery that makes “Kid A” (title track) so compelling. Over a similarly repetitive bass line, a rather simple chord progression, a standard percussion arrangement, and the use of a few other elements, this ranks as one of Radiohead’s most haunting recordings.
“Treefingers” carries out the first half of the album. As it so happens to be, the song was made my playing notes on a guitar, edited, and then placed into a sampler to loop for a few minutes. This is more or less the “Fitter Happier” of Kid A. It’s hard to count it as a track because there’s nothing really to say about it. This is purely a conduit, but even as an intermission, it’s brilliant minimalism should not be overlooked.
In the second half, Yorke and co. come galloping leisurely out of the gates, with a hypnotic “Optimistic.” Like “Let Down,” “Pyramid Song,” “Fake Plastic Trees,” and even a few tunes off of Pablo Honey, I didn’t expect to love this song as much as I currently do. This song is the sardonic anthem of far-right conservatives the world over. Speaking of big fish eating littler ones, and an eponymous mention of glass-half-full wisdom, this song is notable for one lyric that, out of context, sounds more cheerful than the brooding and punk-edged gem such as this. “You can try the best you can/If you try the best you can/The best you can is good enough.” Thom Yorke coined this from his partner, Rachel Owen, as this is a favorite saying of hers. This is one of two songs on the album that have an outstanding post-chorus. With “Optimistic,” there’s this snare action that really compliments and darkens the song. All of this builds into this very jazz like outro that’s kind of groovy, and it plays into the next song really well. In fact, this is one of the most perfect songs I can think of, as the music works wonders as well as the lyrics do. A lot of songs aren’t that balanced. Some songs are that balanced, but they’re mediocre as a whole, but not “Optimistic.”
“In Limbo” is exactly what it says it is. It’s a smooth, swirling, and thick tune used for the sake of transition. In my eyes, it’s a necessary filler, but the weakest link (save “Treefingers”) of the album.
What comes next is what Kid A has been building up to; “Idioteque.” This album has a knack for minimalism, but an airtight atmosphere. “Idioteque” encapsulates everything about Kid A. There’s that simplistic, but soul piercing progression, coupled with the catchy-as-chlamydia beat that pulsates for the duration of the track. The vocals are reminiscent of “Everything in Its Right Place.” That’s where the two tracks share common ground; through their stripped down arrangements, and fragmented vocals buffing the track. Other than those two commonalities, “Idioteque” is bedlum. If there was ever a Radiohead song to dance to, it would be this. It’s truly electrifying in its brilliance. Kid A is a rather difficult album to get through, but it’s all worth it, because this is the pinnacle of the record. If “Everything in Its Right Place” is where everything should be, as the album pans out, that certainty has been forgotten by now. This is that moment of change that is irreversible and clear that “This is really happening.” That current of fear and anticipation that courses through one’s being is encapsulated in the worst way possible; i.e. without fully accepting the inevitable. It’s difficult to say whether or not this is the darkest moment of the album. It could be the most tragic, with the only contender vying for that title being “How to Disappear Completely.” The latter is tragic due to the alienated stigma it emits and the sheer denial Yorke is displacing throughout the song, whereas the former is tragic in the sense of knowing one’s fate, but not being able to take on that role. Finally, the track dissolves into an ethereal, but nonetheless eerie transition.
“Morning Bell” is a hard song to write about. I’ve probably given it less attention than any other song on the album, and that includes the hidden “Untitled” bit. All I know is that I do like it. It serves as a great pallet cleanser after the delectable “Idioteque.” Even on its own, it does sound amazing. This is the other song with a cool post-chorus. Most of the track, and Thom Yorke’s falsetto and telephone effect vocals, are very balanced, and not particularly gaudy. They’re simply there. Technically, it’s a post-verse/bridge, but I digress. Where the track shows restraint, there are these interludes that explode, almost euphorically. It’s almost as if Radiohead was U2 for only a split second, but better. Those contrasts compliment each other, build, and fall perfectly on one another.
What (sort of) ends the album is one of the most somber Radiohead songs ever. Over the saddest organ ever played, Thom Yorke yearns for the company of red wine and sleeping pills. He longs for relief, and maybe even the past. What comes in on top of Thom’s organ is this arrangement that is completely recognizable as an homage to old Disney orchestrations. That is the most optimistic moment of the whole album. Kid A is a dark mofo, and this balances it so perfectly. The sorrow is still there, but there’s a pining for glory, for happiness, for the world that once made Yorke whole. So he’ll try again “See you in the next life.” After two minutes of silence, “Untitled,” a brief arrangement of electronics sweeps along to cap off a true masterpiece.
That is Kid A. Truly it is a masterpiece. Even if one were to go back and look at relatively negative reviews for this album, the harshest thing that could be said is that it wasn’t OK Computer. No, Kid A is not at all OK Computer. It’s strange to believe that those two records came from the same five guys. That’s a lot of what makes Radiohead so incredible; their versatility, or rather, their willingness to expand themselves. That’s the same aspect that made The Beatles so great. Even if I’m not a sycophant fanatic like so many other artists or music lovers, I readily appreciate why The Beatles were not only commercial juggernauts, but musical geniuses. Listen to Please Please Me, and then go take a crack at The White Album. Both are great records, but they’re astonishingly separate accomplishments.
Kid A, whether by accident or not, is about dealing with change, all tied together by the album’s atmosphere. Change never feels good. There’s always worry underneath every moment of it. It’s what plagues people from ever enjoying anything from life; fear, worry, the need for stability, etc. More prevalent than time itself is change. There’s literally nothing more universal. Everything and everyone is in constant state of flux always, whether anyone knows it or not. Change is not good or bad or even fair. It simply exists.
As I mentioned in talking about Kanye West’s Graduation, I’m heading off to college soon. At the time I had written that piece, I had not fully grasped the concept of what that would mean.Now, only three months shy of high school graduation, I am understanding what that will mean. Autonomy is now synonymous with responsibility. That’s scary to think how little I’ll be able to mess up. Regardless of these concerns, I’m ready for it, don’t get me wrong. Both my mother and I believe that I will do fine in a more independent environment. Yes, it will be frightening, but this is okay. All anyone can do is the best they can, and the best you can is good enough.
“The National Anthem”
“How to Disappear Completely”