To begin talking about Kid A, one has to go back to 1997, the year Radiohead really stepped away from the behemoth they created with “Creep,” and took on a new form as a band that was able to spin lyrics about post-apocalyptic society into rock anthems with OK Computer. In the wake of said album, the band began to feel the strain of super-stardom, a topic merely skimmed in the film Meeting People is Easy, which showed the beginnings of Thom Yorke’s reclusive nature, and his will to escape their angsty pop hit. To make matters worse, in an attempt to escape the limelight of a song as anthemic as “Loser” by Beck, he had unwittingly made what is constantly referred to as the best of (or in the midst of the best) the 90s. What do you do when you accidentally make yourself a darling of the music community at large, whilst trying to get people to leave you the fuck alone?
The answer, Yorke thought, was to simply start over from the ground up. Being the leader of the band, he held the most sway, and managed to re-build the entire makeup and sound of the band, and, utilizing the new business structure that the media had created (releasing small blips in between shows on stations like MTV), released Kid A, an album so far removed from the sound of the band’s first three albums, that the only thing tying them all together was Thom Yorke’s instantly recognizable falsetto.
If OK Computer was the world of tomorrow, Kid A was the world in the day after tomorrow. The album starts with the mellow synth of “Everything in its Right Place,” with its quiet repeating lyrics that are seemingly about nothing (“Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon,” “There are to colors in my head/what was that you tried to say?”), and segueing gently into the one-part lullaby of the title track and its distorted-into-nothing vocals. “I slipped on a little white lie,” you make over the tinker of the keyboard and the slight hum of the drums. It slowly builds, as the voice sings “We’ve got heads on sticks/and you’ve got ventriloquists,” and you feel as though something may very well be in the process of being born here.
You abandon this quickly as the next song, “The National Anthem,” begins, with grungy and distorted bass and a squealing horn section: Yorke’s de facto anthem for his fictional nation. “Everyone has got the fear/it’s holding on/turn it off!” he pleads as everything groans around him, as the trumpets get louder, the ice caps melt, and everything boils around him. The horns finally give way after that which was in utero in “Kid A” is born, and Radiohead marks themselves as the new parents of this new noise, blending the words of old with the sounds of new, blending into this child of quiet, claustrophobic wrath.
The child has it’s first epiphany when everything gives way into “How To Disappear Completely,” and all there is is a quiet guitar. “I’m not here, this isn’t happening,” he croons, sounding to be on the verge of tears. “How To Disappear Completely” proves to be the most telling and affecting song on the album, stepping away from the whole of everything up to this point to say, “That there, that’s not me.”
On a purely lyrical basis, the album is somehow nothing to write home about, at least not at first. However, after awhile, songs like “Optimistic” seem to seep into your psyche, with the song’s refrain of “You can try the best you can, the best you can is good enough” becoming a positive affirmation, whereas the apocalyptic disco of “Idioteque” and it groans and cracks, the whole while Yorke’s chanting grows louder, singing, “We’re not scare mongering, this is really happening” and “Who’s in the bunker?/Women and children first.” Yorke seemed to, in the three years between OK Computer and Kid A, discover how to perfectly convey every screaming emotion in the most simple ways he can, proven in likely the most sorrowful break-up song in existence, “Motion Picture Soundtrack.”
The drum machines and synths that have been bursting and blooming over the course of the albums, growing in “Treefingers,” the album’s instrumental interlude, come back to earth during the horrors of everyday life brought to the forefront in “Morning Bell.” More a tone poem than a song, Yorke outlines a normal suburban life falling to pieces, split down the middle (“Cut the kids in half” “Where’d you park the car?/Clothes are on the lawn with the furniture”), it demonstrates a new world much like that discussed with “ice age coming” in “Idioteque,” it shows the birth of this cold dead place: the death of the family.
The album closes with the haunting organs of “Motion Picture Soundtrack.” In many ways, the song is one of the most sorrowful on the album, if not one of the most sorrowful by the band to date. Yorke barely sings on the song; he croons in the same way he did in “How To Disappear Completely.” When he sings “Red wine and sleeping pills, help me get back to your arms/Cheap sex and sad films, help me get back where I belong,” you wonder if the whole of Kid A up to this point has been the world created in the mind of the man singing this song, a world that has fallen into complete destruction, all because of the “you” in the first line of the song. In the second verse, joined by the sounds of bells, he lets go the most gripping and tearful line on the record: “Stop sending letters. Letters always get burned. It’s not like the movies that fed us on little white lies,” bringing us back to the little white lie he slipped on in “Kid A.” The album closes with one final, sorrowful blow: “I will see you in the next life.”
What makes Kid A such a beautiful album is not the fact that it was a masterwork for a band that had exploded because of their mastery of your guitar and the apocalypse to come, it’s how beautifully they portray that the end of the world doesn’t have to be brought upon by nuclear war or global warming, it could be because of the loss of someone (or something) important. In the verse left out of the final version of “Motion Picture Soundtrack, after the second verse, he delivers the payload that is the key to the album: “Beautiful angel, torn apart at birth/Limbless and helpless, I can barely recognize you.” This creature that was born of noise was the product of extreme sorrow, and because part of its soul had been destroyed, which (and I can’t state this enough) is a fate worse than the looming destruction of the world. It’s the destruction of a life as that life knows it.
For all the dystopian imagery that Thom Yorke puts into his lyrics, be it “2+2=5” from Hail to the Thief or the computerized speech of OK Computer’s “Fitter Happier,” he managed to spin all of that into a deeply moving love letter to love lost with Kid A, in a way that would never truly make you think it was anything but a vision of chemical warfare. It could be said that, in the time after OK Computer, while Yorke was being heckled into tears by screaming fans demanding to hear “Creep,” he became something more than a man with a guitar. He became a shell, and Kid A was a time-lapse piece of that shell being recreated in the image of something else, something entirely indistinguishable from the thing before it. It’s tragic that it happened, but it ended up being one of the most haunting things the new millennium had to offer, and it was proof that it was, truly, going to be alright, and that everything was in its right place.
Further listening: Kid A can be downloaded here, while the film discussed in this article, Meeting People is Easy, can be found here. For those seeking something different, Kid 17, a curious sync-up in which each song re-starts and overlaps with the song 17 seconds in, can be found here.