With no new releases for 2008 that interest me yet, I thought I might review a few older albums from the decade. I loved Radiohead's In Rainbows from last year so much that it's gotten me interested in really digging in to understand the band. Kid A has to be one of the oddest albums I've ever listened to. In the past, I'd listen to the first track, the brilliant keyboard-rich "Everything in Its Right Place," which sounds like ambient science fiction stuff. After that though, I'd lose interest. So many of the "songs" (if we can even call them that) on Kid A are very unusual. After listening to it last night though (after a few rounds of margaritas), I think I get it. And I like it!
Kid A has to be understood in the context of OK Computer, the band's 1997 album that was heralded as a masterpiece. It was experimental, high minded, award-winning, critically acclaimed, and a global best-seller. Kid A then, which came out 3 years later, is a reaction to that success, but rather than a cliched "fame sucks" exercise, Radiohead basically blew themselves up for the album, ditching the traditional "band" structure (singer, guitar, bass, keyboard and drums) for something entirely new. Those elements do appear, but they aren't the essential ingredients. A lot of the album is electronic, but certainly not techno, as that would be too rigid structurally. Kid A is more free flowing, like improvisational jazz, such as the latter part of "The National Anthem," a cacaphony of sound over a driving bass line. The lyrics, if they even mean anything (that's certainly up for debate), are sometimes distorted to the point they cannot be heard.
"How to Disappear Completely" opens with eerie keyboard effects and acoustic guitar and features an undistorted Thom Yorke vocal. It's a beautiful and sad song, which, if I read it right, is about self-alienation. Strings take over for the last minute, wailing as if they're crying. "Optimistic" is driven by electric guitar and drums and also has a standard vocal. Together these are the most traditional songs on the album, and would sound at home on In Rainbows.
Other tracks would not however, such as the instrumental "Treefingers" or "Kid A," which I can best describe as sounding like science fiction minimalism--the kind of thing that might appear on the soundtrack to some pretentious film about robots. "Kid A" has a vocal, but it's so distorted I have no idea what's being said.
Hyrbrid "In Limbo" blends the sci-fi keyboards with more traditional bass and drums. Most of the vocals are distorted by the music, except a few, like "I'm lost at sea" and "I lost my way," so the sentiment is at least clear if the the meaning isn't. The song get shoved down a sonic blender at the end, churned out like the sound of the sea, before giving way to the hard electronic beats of "Idioteque," which features keyboards that sound like they're from an old sci-fi movie.
"Morning Bell" is mellower and more melodic: keyboards and standard vocals over beats. It's featured in an alternate version on their next album, Amnesiac (2001), which was recorded at the same time as Kid A. "Motion Picture Soundtrack" finishes the album off with distorted organ, which manages to sound both hopeful and melancholic. There's a big pause of silence, then more weird electronic music.
The more I listen to this album, the more I like it. Although I still prefer In Rainbows to this, I now appreciate Kid A more than I used to.
Best: Everything in Its Right Place, How to Disappear Completely, The National Anthem, Morning Bell, Idioteque, Optimistic, In Limbo