In the grand scheme of things, I suppose a cynic would say Kid A proved that nothing new could be done in pop music besides destroying it completely. It dissected the medium’s components and recast them in a new form, with different instruments and techniques producing a disorienting effect. It was massively popular, and one of the last universally and communally adored masterpieces of shared culture. But, sadly, its particular school of art rock did not have much of an influence, or at least not enough influence, on the succeeding generation.
It is a world unto itself, conjuring atmospheres and textures no other record would dream of. The fact that such a beloved rock band produced it added to their relevance and legend. After the 90s shied away from weird manipulative studio trickery and cold synthesizers, Radiohead brought those back in vogue.
Kid A can be interpreted in any number of ways, but that’s the key. It was clearly a statement – a cohesive work that was more than just marking time or appeasing the system. Some cherished the innovative melding of styles – krautrock, jazz fusion, post-rock, electronica, surf pop, dance music, ambient and traditional orchestration all hold hands and get along here. Some admired the radical detachment and paradoxical warmth found within the shredded husk of the band’s old sound. Others praised the intensive anti-commercial approach the group took to the record’s promotion and touring. Unlike some activist artists, they went about it in practical, understated ways, including a hugely influential “blipvert” subliminal ad campaign using their unrivaled and haunting album art, a brand-less tour conducted in intimate tents devoid of corporate sponsors, refusing to release any singles while letting the songs digitally disseminate on their own terms, and making very selective media appearances through predominantly independent outlets.
Throughout the decade, Radiohead set the model for market success in the internet age by cultivating their fanbase and preserving their ideals, becoming more selective but not losing an ounce of critical respect or the attention of the general public. They had almost complete control with this model, and perversely, by scaling back in some respects they still commanded enormous album and ticket sales around the globe. It was a cultural milestone when this modestly promoted release went to #1 in the US and UK through sheer anticipation and curiosity.
All the usual cliches about this album have some grain of truth. It’s bizarre and malformed by design (Thom Yorke’s voice is usually manipulated, traditional guitars are very notably absent for three-quarters of the LP, and songs are structured like Mad Libs out of a hat, which is exactly how some were created), but it is not incomprehensible. The emotions, musical turns and messages peek through, or else it wouldn’t be nearly as successful as it is.
Kid A is famous for encompassing post-millenial paranoia, modern political unrest, and the peculiar state of numbness brought on by everyday technology. It’s dark, shadowy music with uncanny sounds and yet, in a very absurd way, the normal components they used to construct this “alien rock” become noticeable after the initial shock and it becomes rather comforting. During recording, musical savant Jonny Greenwood commandeered an obscure old electronic instrument called the Ondes Martenot for a handful of songs (one undeniable modern instance of fashioning rock music from a truly new instrument) and it has a haunting timbre. There are snatches of electronic melancholy, brisk and direct jazz motifs, some stately classical orchestration, and a few good old rock ‘n’ roll influences. Suffice it to say, it’s a distinct experience that sounds like no other. All the tunes are quite different, but they share a common goal.
Much like my OK Computer piece, I feel that including a paragraph on this record’s strange genesis would demystify it and make it more interesting. After all, beyond its importance, this is still a bunch of tunes made by idiosyncratic humans. Two of these tracks started as some of the band’s earliest songs, but were fine-tuned and work perfectly in this environment. The ambient instrumental “Treefingers” is actually composed of chopped-up snatches of a guitar piece, which I think is impressive. There are a couple compositions inspired by non-rock artists, like the avant-garde musique concrete backdrop of “Idioteque” and the Disney-esque string loops in “Motion Picture Soundtrack”. Another track is inspired by advice R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe gave to Thom in the midst of dehumanizing, exhausting press tours. Amidst all the circular phrasing and doomy themes, one tune is rather pointedly about divorce and fits in seamlessly.
If you picture impenetrable chaos when you think of Kid A’s reputation, nothing could be further from the truth. Actually, while not sparse, most of these songs somewhat resemble twisted nursery rhymes: a clear throughline, variations on a melodic theme, a very static sonic background with all the details going on in front. In fact, I’ve been describing it as otherworldly when its vague, hesitant concept suggests a future world. Going in to recording, Thom Yorke had some paranoid ideas about the first human clone (hence the title), as well as terrifying ruminations on polar ice cap melt rates, geopolitical disasters centered on oil, and other miscellany (covered in the polemic hidden booklet). The disparity and vagueness of these themes makes them easier to swallow, or overlook, if desired. But that “first child in a postapocalyptic world” thing really stuck with me, and one of my earliest impressions of this record was the sound of the titular kid discovering and creating music entirely by themselves, with no outside influences, in the dying days of humanity. Perhaps a shred of the old civilization’s music here and there, but informed entirely by a naïve, DIY logic. I don’t want to color anyone’s perceptions too much, but I always felt this interpretation was borne out by the unparalleled, lonely, abstract booklet art: In particular, the first bars of “Everything In Its Right Place” seem to drop the listener into the bleak landscape on the back cover and immediately evokes the world of Kid A. Who knows, though? That’s just my take. It’s never that simple with Radiohead, which is why I love them.
No discussion of the record would be complete without a mention of the huge sonic gulf between this and its predecessor. The insane leap of faith taken in making this left turn is part of the attraction, but there are a few links between the LPs once you get to know them. OK Computer was a collage of everything meaningful in a busy, conflicted era. For an ambiguous, sprawling decade, Kid A was more of a digitally-scrambled-image blank slate, where listeners could project their own fears and dreams (much like the nuclear family facing the empty expanse in the record’s art; I’m not kidding, you should find and download it). Every spare gesture and note carries veiled significance. Kid is defiantly synthetic where OKC was tried-and-true organic. The previous release reflected the world as it was in 1997; by 2000 things had gone so crazy that Radiohead shifted its gaze forward to the next era, ice ages and all. And yet real concerns and emotions still bleed through, making what could have been an inaccessible experiment into a daring, exciting and beautiful experience. Kid A is a peerless innovation in a decade that was littered with great throwback rock. That’s why it’s the best album of the 2000s.
Key track: “Kid A”
See also: Amnesiac – Radiohead (2001), Hail to the Thief – Radiohead (2003), The King Of Limbs – Radiohead (2011)