It’s a curious coincidence that 2000 saw the release of Coldplay’s Parachutes, U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind and Radiohead’s Kid A, all within the course of about two months. U2 has frequently been cited as a precursor to Radiohead, their earnest and epic songwriting providing a foundation from which the band built new settlements on The Bends, while Coldplay merely took what Radiohead did with The Bends and made it Top 40 and date-night viable. These two records sound fairly similar and, while neither tread new ground by any means, both eventually outsold Kid A. Radiohead might no longer seem as a bridge between these two bands, but they arguably occupied such a place at one point. But by the time this release date triangle occurred, Radiohead had tested their artistic limits only to find that they stretch into other stratospheres.
Kid A felt like nothing short of reinvention when it was released. Though I can attest that hearing OK Computer for the first time was nothing short of revelation, there was nonetheless a clear progression from what they had built up with The Bends. This was something different, something strange, alien and beautiful. I could wax nostalgic about hearing Kid A for the first time on its day of release, during my freshman year in college, its foreign beauty mirroring my own sense of anxiety and bewilderment, but I think that more or less covers it. I will say, however, that I bought it on the day of release—a going-to-the-record-store ritual for that long-awaited first listen, one that I haven’t kept up with in the same way I did when I was younger. Both the Internet and regularly writing about music might be to blame for that, but part of what made the anticipation and release of Kid A such a monumental event was just how unexpected the end result was. Ten months into a new millennium and Radiohead released the album of the still-new decade, a title I strongly believe the album still holds long after its release.
Kid A is a ‘rock’ record, though not in the same way that The Bends or OK Computer are rock records. The album progresses in a manner such that each song sounds completely different from the one that precedes it, yet, they make a fluid cohesive whole, it creates a mythical musical journey that probably sounds cliché now. With Kid A, that journey is both surreal and ominous, otherworldly and gorgeous, yet frequently horrifying. While there are still some who remain ambivalent about much of the band’s work, particularly in this decade, I have known few who didn’t fall under this album’s spell, and for good reason.
The music of Kid A is incredibly dense, even more so than that of OK Computer, part of which may stem from a stronger presence of electronics and a darker ambience. Opening track “Everything In Its Right Place,” though fairly simple in terms of its opening arrangement, is easily one of the heaviest songs in the band’s repertoire, a warm albeit unsettling synth crafting an impenetrable sonic force field, Thom Yorke spinning a web of oblique lyrics (“yesterday I woke up sucking on a lemon“). The title track, meanwhile, is lighter yet more disturbing fare, childlike in tone, yet sputtering like an Aphex Twin construction, as Yorke sings through electronic effects. By track three, “The National Anthem,” Radiohead has already spun off into another course, abandoning IDM tendencies for distorted funk, filtered through psychedelic squalls of feedback. Yorke still sings through effects filters, declaring “everyone around here…everyone has got…the fear” before a seasick horn section erupts in both deep ass grooves and scary, paranoid caterwauling. This then bleeds into “How To Disappear Completely,” a hazy, outer space acoustic track that finds Yorke singing “I’m not here/ this isn’t happening.” In an eerie twist of lyrical continuity, during the chaotic electronic glitch dance of “Idioteque,” Yorke shrieks “this is really happening!”
Along with “Iditoteque,” alternative radio took to “Optimistic” as a single, though it wasn’t officially released as such. Nonetheless, its dirty rock grooves made it appealing in a more accessible way than most tracks on the album, deep tom-tom thumps driving the anthemic masterpiece. Yorke sings “you can try the best you can/ try the best you can/ the best you can is good enough” only to find the song growing more portentous. Electronics escalate, distortion thickens, and after the second chorus, the first appearance of a snare marks a descent into an awesome but chilling breakdown. “In Limbo” mirrors its title perfectly, spiraling into a nebulous opacity, layers of guitars and vocals tumbling over one another, detached and bleak, but magnificent. By this point, “Morning Bell” almost sounds upbeat, particularly as Yorke sweetly pleas “release me.” Still, this song isn’t immune to the pervading creepiness of the album, it merely triumphs because of it, as Yorke channels Midas and sings “cut the kids in half,” which almost sounds like “put the kids to bed,” making it doubly creepy. “Motion Picture Soundtrack” closes Kid A, a simple accordion progression taking the place of the icy electronics and disorienting guitar effects that characterize the preceding nine tracks. It’s an ornate and symphonic track, practically Björk-like in its alien balladry.
It was suggested around the time of its release that Kid A‘s concept revolved around the first cloned human and his experiences, though it’s difficult to draw any logical conclusions from Thom Yorke’s dense and cryptic lyricism. It’s not quite the reflection of consumerist society and advancement of technology that The Bends and OK Computer were. The politically-motivated bile that inspired Amnesiac and Hail to the Thief is only here in a more abstract sense, with distant warnings of the catastrophes of climate change. It exists in its own distant time and place, a dark and frightening present that sounds like the future. It’s ghostly and paranormal. To hear it is to experience it, to tap unknown thoughts and emotions and to feel music in entirely new ways.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.