Radiohead – Kid A 

I’ve enjoyed Kid A most when the office is empty and it’s just me and the striplights and the screen, too late in the evening. At quiet times like those I’ve been only too happy to indulge it – in fact I’ve found it soothing, a good album to work to. I’ve enjoyed Kid A least when I’ve wanted to feel something, or get excited. I think it’s a wilful, insular record and by some stretch the best thing the band have done.

But I’m not a Radiohead fan. I disliked OK Computer quite a lot, its reputation more. It felt shallow and misanthropic, full of bluster and a disgust which felt barely earned. ”Fitter, happier and more productive”, Thom Yorke made a robot voice sneer. But I wanted to be fitter, and more productive, and as for happier – at the time the record came out I was just coming off anti-depressants and trying to claw back together some vestiges of a social life and personality. Frankly, this scrawny little fuck carping at human happiness – yes, even the ‘simple’ happiness of the career-minded – made me sick to my stomach.

Of course, I was biased, but you filter music through your personal experience, and I’m not going to bend backwards to be objective because a record gets called Important in Q. I’m better now, though, and I borrowed OK Computer from a friend to discover that I loved one track on it (the funkless beat-spasms and dizzy riffing of “Airbag”) and still was left cold and patronised by the rest. Radiohead’s greatest failure, from my perspective, was their social criticism – from the lyrics, the packaging, the huge juddering sound of it all, you picked up the idea that Radiohead had something big to say, a disgusted message to a fallen world. From “Fitter, Happier”, from the previous record’s “Fake Plastic Trees”, from the doubled-up ironies of the slogans (“YOU ARE A TARGET MARKET”), you started getting an idea of what it was. Nothing they’d ever spell out, you understand – they saved their hints of politics for the website – but still, something about art and mediation and just how perfectly horrible it was to be young and alive in the late 1990s. It was ”I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo” pulled out of the can’t-talk-to-girls-at-a-party context and magnified into a bottomless dread which turned the world into a greyed-out nightmare. The vomit, the vomit, and all that, but the bile was mostly Thom’s.

Now, in a sense I could sympathise, though I failed to see where all those pompous Floydian guitars fitted in. But it looked to me like Radiohead had fallen into the first pitfall of cultural critics: you – even and especially if you’re the most ‘important’ rock band of your generation – are part of the problem, not the solution. Whether it was their intention or not, OK Computer seemed to be standing aloof from the rot it diagnosed, offering a pure and stable vantage point for the enlightened and disaffected to feebly shake their fists at the rest of us.

It’s just my feeling, but Kid A, for all its hype and ceremony, seems humbler than OK Computer, beaten down by events, not raging against them. This record, so self-consciously experimental, could have been a rich man’s folly, but instead I find myself taking the band at face value. “How To Disappear Completely And Never Be Found” is how they’ve titled one of the more straightforward songs on Kid A – it could have lent its name to the whole record, since disappearance – of vocals, of structure, of guitar heroism, of lyrical meaning – seems to be what Radiohead are aiming at. For half an album, it’s the shyest big-release record I’ve ever heard: enervated and doubtful, not by any means difficult but certainly diffident.

You can tick off the new influences on Kid A easily enough – brittle, queasy Intelligent Dance Music and pitter-pattery fusion, mostly. The old models break loose once or twice, too – the band still bring on the strings when they want a quick emotional fix, and Yorke’s voice carries too many of the songs, despite still being one of the most overrated in rock. His dulled, smeary singing – it’s one of the great mysteries of our time why anyone calls the man ‘angelic’ – is as overdone as ever, and he comes close to ruining some interesting tracks. Kid A tends to work best where his voice is brutally treated or isn’t there at all. Fans of his lyrics needn’t worry – where you can work them out they’re utterly fractured, freaked nonsense. You could spend a hundred wasted paragraphs trying to puzzle out what all this stuff about new ice ages, Pied Piper fantasies and floating down the Liffey is about: best just to say that Kid A is a busted flush lyrically, and move on.

When you’ve made a record which got the kind of reception OK Computer did, making an ‘experimental’ follow-up becomes one very obvious option. You can, after all, get away with it, and since your next record is likely to be gruesomely self-conscious anyway (think of REM’s floundering back-to-basics Monster), you might as well indulge yourself too. So I don’t think Kid A is particularly brave, and I don’t think it’s surprising, and I’m not going to give Radiohead any points for trying what they’ve tried here. I am going to give them points for putting a surprisingly listenable record out at the end of it. The humility I sensed in Kid A is what keeps it being intolerable, Radiohead’s equivalent of Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, or Blur’s 13: the band sound tentative and confused, and in my book that’s a very good thing.

The first side of Kid A is, basically, the best thing this band could have put out at this time. It has one coherent song (strings, Thom, crowd-pleasing), one Warp Records-influenced soundfield excursion, one very pretty piece of pure Enoid ambience. It has the excellent title track, where Yorke’s voice is pleasingly atomised over stuttering, padding drums (one otherwise disappointing thing about Kid A is the drum programming, which in “Airbag” seemed like the bands strong point but now seems too in hock to its post-techno influences). And it has “The National Anthem”, a geeky, bottom-heavy, 23 Skidoo-style skank which uses free jazz a lot better than PRML SCRM did, mostly by remembering it’s not just cool noise and actually had dynamics.

The second side, though, shows the project’s downsides. Firstly, Radiohead seem to lose their nerve, with “Optimistic”, a straightforward and ugly rock song. The momentum breaks, and so does the shaky trust you’ve been building up. If you’re an old-time fan, you’ll suddenly want more of this stuff. If like me you’re not, you’ll find it intrusive and irritating. “In Limbo” – essentially, Radiohead having a bash at Talk Talk – brings things back on track, but Yorke is all over the song like a weed. “Idioteque” is plain awful, a piss-poor tilt at Aphex Twin’s “Windowlicker” with Yorke yammering excruciatingly over the top. And as the sleepy “Morning Bell” descends into bleeping and burbling, it’s the only time Kid A feels fatally noodly. The last listed track is “Motion Picture Soundtrack”, a cornball Radiohead ballad, which keeps Thom smothered enough in the mix to stand a hope of working.

No longer central to the band’s sound, Thom Yorke is still plainly the key to its vision. He’s gone into the studio consciously seeking to boggle the fans (one original album title was Emperor’s New Clothes, a reviewer’s gift sadly dropped) and he might actually have done it, judging by other early reviews. He’s also ducked out from under his albatross in neat style: though sadly there’s a new album of song-based material due in the Spring, Radiohead have served notice that from this point on they can and will do and release anything they want. The only question is, can they do it well? On this showing, possibly: Kid A is by no means a good album and can’t often rise above the influences its chosen: far too much of its impact is down to the fact that it’s Radiohead doing this stuff. But it’s still more interesting than the highest-selling rock record of the year has a right to be.