Kid A is one of the greatest albums ever recorded. Rolling Stone ranked it as number sixty-seven of the five hundred greatest albums of all time. (Number one was Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, obviously.) Pitchfork gave it a perfect ten. It was a number-one album in both the UK and the US and was certified platinum in its first week. It won a Grammy and was nominated for Album of the Year, and The Times ranked it as the best album of the decade. All of which is rather impressive considering the band released no singles from it and they almost solely used the internet to promote the record, by leaking it, making it available to stream and sharing bootlegs of early performances.
The way in which the album was promoted and the critical reception it garnered was one part of what made the album such a landmark in rock (if one can even class it as rock). Another was the build up to it—the intense pressure Radiohead were under to follow up their first three albums with something even better, the massive amounts of public scrutiny to which they were exposed after the success of OK Computer, and Thom Yorke’s generally declining mental health. And of course, the final part, the most important part, the only part which really mattered, was the music.
When those first few keys of ‘Everything In Its Right Place’ come tumbling down from nowhere, and Tom Yorke’s over-processed vocals come fading in, it is evident that Radiohead are trying to do something—very successfully, I may add—which has never been done before. The kick thuds softly in the background and the keys pulsate into what feels like infinity. It starts to pick up as Yorke howls ‘Everything/Everything/In its right place/In its right place’ over and over and Nigel Godrich’s masterful production makes the keys spill out over the sides and then fall back into place until the track steadily fades out into nothing.
The eponymous song and the tinkering, almost plucked, xylophone which characterises its introduction seeps in. The mesmerising delayed piano stumbles over itself, covering Yorke’s indecipherable vocals. Despite its soft, rolling sound, the track has an ominous edge; Yorke groaning ‘Standing in the shadow at the end of my bed’ gives ‘Kid A’ a darker sound, and the words themselves are reminiscent of those on Black Sabbath’s opening track on their debut album, said to have been written after Geezer Butler woke up in the middle of the night and saw a dark figure standing at the end of his bed. (‘What is this that stands before me/Figure in black which points at me’.)
The final high pitched note on ‘Kid A’ bleeds into ‘The National Anthem’, underlined by a constant, merciless bassline written and performed by Yorke. Johnny Greenwood’s sustained guitar howls in the distance and Phil Selway’s pounding drums give this track an older Radiohead sound—this actually sounds like a rock song, albeit an unrelenting, hypnotic one. And then, out of nowhere, the horns begin, playing just two notes in stabbing procession, until the brass begins to solo over the top, and the sound builds to an almighty improvised climax. And still that bassline is going in the background, unremitting, ceaseless, punching you in the chest—until it suddenly stops and all that’s left is an old sample.
‘How To Disappear Completely (And Never Be Found Again)’, the Radiohead lover’s Radiohead song, melts into existence. The acoustic guitar quietly keeps the tempo in the background and Johnny Greenwood’s guitar swells and falls over the top in intense waves. As Yorke croons his desperately sad vocals based on something R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe once said to him (‘I walk through walls/I float down the Liffey/I’m not here/This isn’t happening’), Colin Greenwood gently walks his bass to and fro, and finally Selway’s drums come in, just, somewhere far, far away. Yorke juxtaposes images of wild destruction and intense alienation, of things all falling apart around him (‘Strobe lights and blown speakers/Fireworks and hurricanes’), and finally his voice is reverbed into the distance as his falsetto soars in tune with the strings which have appeared from nowhere. This is, perhaps, the most Radioheadesque Radiohead track of all, and it is urgently depressing.
‘Treefingers’, created from a solo Johnny Greenwood played and then processed into obliteration by Godrich, offers some respite from the tracks which have come before. It serves to perfectly break up the album—it acts, essentially, as an interlude, and indeed, the second half of this album is strikingly different, and yet has the same essence, as the first. Then beating drums of ‘Optimistic’ pound in on what is the most out-of-place song on this record (and yet still, somehow, it works). ‘Optimistic’ serves as a meditation on playing God, on the terrors of rapidly progressing science and technology, and it has a similar tension as does Joy Division’s ‘She’s Lost Control’, albeit with Yorke’s morose vocals moaning overhead rather than Ian Curtis’ baritone. And yet, there is something almost hopeful about Yorke’s declaration that ‘You can try the best you can/Try the best you can/The best you can is good enough’.
The influence of jazz on Radiohead’s music is immediately evident on ‘In Limbo’, perhaps my least favourite track on this album (although considering the quality of songs on this album, that’s not saying it’s not a fantastic tune). ‘In Limbo’, as the name suggests, doesn’t move anywhere, but drifts along in 6/8 in the verses, alternating to 4/4 in the chorus which gives it a disjointed, jolting sound, despite its soft, ethereal quality. Godrich produces it into pure noise at the end and the whole song seems to turn into an industrial mess as it pulses out into nothing.
And ‘Idioteque’ comes pounding in. Radiohead’s Live at the BBC Studios version far surpasses the album version for its intensity and power, but the album version has a pulsing, mesmeric quality to it which stands in opposition to Yorke’s vigorous vocals. The lyrics, supposedly made from fragments of different lines York put into a hat and pulled out at random, still seem to predict a dark future of technological alienation and corporate greed and irresponsibility; they are dystopian to their core: ‘Ice age coming, ice age coming/Let me hear both sides, let me hear both sides, let me hear both’. ‘Idioteque’ was produced with the idea that the drum pattern sounded like the speakers at a rave, pushed to their limits by a pulsating 128 beat. Radiohead captured that idea rather well.
The drums pound to a finish and what we’re left with is the screeching, jarring sounds of a grey, industrial future, repeating over and over themselves until the 5/4 ‘Morning Bell’, and coincidentally my favourite track on this album, my favourite Radiohead track, and one of my favourite tracks of all time, beats itself into existence. The keys make this track, supplemented by that characteristic Johnny Greenwood guitar going round and round and Selway’s intensely repetitive heavily compressed drums (thank you Godrich)—and, of course, Yorke’s unintelligible crooning of ‘Cut the kids in half’ and ‘Release me’. ‘Morning Bell’ is an absolutely perfect song. It isn’t just music—it creates a whole world in and of itself, of a big dark room with those drums forever rolling, and some visual manifestation of Yorke’s voice calling out into the distance for a respite from the pain. And then, of course, as with every song on this record, Godrich’s production—those gated drums, the reverb which soaks this track on Greenwood’s guitar, the screeching delayed noises which suddenly disappear—truly sets him up as the sixth member.
The record ends on what is both one of the most beautiful and one of the saddest love songs of all time. Of course, the organ lends itself to a forlorn sound, but it is Yorke’s whining vocals which conjure the deepest sense of loneliness and bitterness at having lost out on love. Yorke sings of quenching the pain with sleeping pills and wine, of fucking and watching sad films to remember—or forget—his lost love. And who is crazy? Is she calling him crazy, or is he bitterly calling her crazy for leaving him? That beautiful arpeggiated harp floats up and down, complementing Yorke’s sweeping falsetto, and the resentment in Yorke’s proclamation that ‘It’s not like the movies/They fed us on little white lies’ tears at the heart. After the chorus, as his voice soars over the top of choral singing, declaring that he will see her in the next life, whatever that may be. And a minute of silence—until the harp fades back in to a heavenly conclusion to end the album.
Every time I finish Kid A, I am upset that it is over. Right from those first plummeting keys to the final glistening notes nine tracks later, this record doesn’t fail to deliver something it didn’t even promise—an unashamedly experimental rock album which uses masterful production and exquisite arrangements to do away with structure and rules, abandon any and all boundaries associated with rock music, and just make something beautiful. Regardless of its background, regardless of the fact that this and Amnesiac are essentially a double album, regardless of the whys and the hows, Kid A is Radiohead’s magnum opus, unrivalled both by any other contemporary rock band or by themselves. It is, and will always remain, one of the greatest albums of all time; but more than that, it is very nearly sonic perfection.