Thursday, October 11, 2007


Song: Idioteque
Artist: Radiohead
Album: Kid A

“Kid A” is most likely the strangest album ever to debut in the number one spot on the Billboard album chart her in the U.S. It is a testament to what Radiohead had done as a band up to that point that the record could chart so high without a single released, without a video, without really anything to hook the record buying public except possibly… “what are they going to do after “O.K. Computer?” It is pretty safe to say that nobody could have predicted Radiohead’s next move… a modern band that had done what they had done has never, before or since, done anything like “Kid A.”

When “Kid A” was released in October of 2000 the reaction was pretty mixed. Some immediately hailed it as a masterpiece, others found it wildly disappointing, expecting a big rock album from the band, which had instead married the strange coldness of “O.K. Computer” with a newfound love of electronic music and jazz. The songs were strange, obtuse, and I suppose not what anyone had in mind. It has since been herald as a masterpiece, with some arguing it as the bands best. It was up for an ‘Album of the Year’ Grammy, and won the ‘Best Alternative Album’ award. In 2005, Pitchfork and Stylus Magazine, in separate lists, both named “Kid A” the best album of the last five years. It continues to divide fans of the band, and has only grown in mystique from those trying to figure out what it all means.

When I got “Kid A” I honestly didn’t know what to think of it. It was hands-down strange, but there were songs I liked right away, many of which were unlike anything I had expected from the band, but none the less had elements from other music I dug. “Idioteque” for me was the song that just all out blew me away. It was catchy, yet creepy. Dancy… but not a dance song. It was a song that I couldn’t stop playing, at first drunk on the strange beats and propulsive movement the song had, and then… and only much later did it grab me lyrically, unfolding a mystery that was so visual to me, yet so abstract.

The mystery behind “Kid A” is certainly part of its allure. The term “Kid A,” as Thom Yorke has said, represents the first human clone. Certainly the title track sounds like a lullaby, a portrait of a newborn with a growing ominous feeling behind it which strengthens as the song progresses. It is also the quiet before the storm that is “The National Anthem,” one of the most innovative and exciting songs the band has written. Chaos, a deep groove, and lyrics that give you nothing by way of information on what the hell is going on… it is as if something is terrible is happening, and it’s impossible to understand any of it. What is shocking about that song is that despite all of that, it is very very listenable.

I haven’t spent a lot of time reading into theories about the album, what it means, and what the band was trying to accomplish with it. With most art I like to see what it means to me, and what I get out of it. I do like to hear what the band likes to say about their work, but fortunately Radiohead also like people to make up their own minds… willing to just put something out there and let their audience sort it out. What we did know is that the band had recorded enough for a double album but decided against it. Instead, they released the second batch of songs as “Amnesiac” less than a year later. It was called a “companion piece” rather than a sequel or continuation. Again, a mystery to ponder and try to decipher.

As mentioned there were no singles or videos made for “Kid A.” Instead, the band created what they called “blips,” short animated clips that were available to view on their website, itself a maze of dead links, dead ends, and more mystery. Here are a few of the blips:

You can find more on YouTube, just search “Kid A” and “blip.”

In 2005 SPIN writer and journalist Chuck Klosterman released “Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story” a loose book chronicling his trek through America visiting places famous musicians died. It’s a fun book, and I recommend it to anyone who’s a music geek like myself and also appreciates the sardonic, and snarky. In the book he uses one chapter to illustrate his theory that Radiohead, with “Kid A,” foreshadowed the events of 9/11. As outrageous as that sounds, let me just say as someone that knows “Kid A” very well, and was in New York for 9/11, his arguments are pretty scary. Honestly, after reading the chapter I was pretty freaked out for a good three hours afterward. (Where actual 9/11 freaked the entire population of the largest city on earth for a good two weeks.) You can read one guys take, with an excerpt from Klosterman here. You can give as much weight to that as you want, but what this illustrates is how deep the mystery of the album is.

What this proves to me, and my thoughts on the album, are that it is basically a story about the start of a world apocalypse, done as a pop album. To me “Kid A” is the idea of a global nightmare born from our own evil self-destruction. If “O.K. Computer” is the feeling, the warning, that our technology is numbing us and pushing us closer to the end of individuality, then “Kid A” is the result. As seen in the blip above, and throughout the artwork of the album, there are creatures referred to as “bears” that seem to multiply, implying the first clone concept, that seem to take over the world… a global epidemic, and one in which we in fact created ourselves. While Klosterman equated “the National Anthem” as when the planes hit the towers, I see it as when things first go very wrong with the clones, and then subsequently with “How to Disappear Completely” we have the lush, dream like, stage where the reality of what happening doesn’t seem real. Thom repeats “I am not here, this isn’t happening.” Denial.

Later, with “Idioteque” it’s the return to chaos, the virus is out… “woman and children first.” I could be the full out war of humans vs. the clones as Thom asks “who’s in a bunker?” and then pleads “I have seen too much; I haven't seen enough,” and “This is really happening.” With this tune Radiohead create a new genre… ‘apocalyptic dance.’ Oy. The record ends with the lush, old Hollywood-feeling “Motion Picture Soundtrack.” It’s beautiful, and closes the awful story with the sun coming up again, and ends with silence.

And then there is “Amnesiac”

Artist: Radiohead
Album: Amnesiac

After the loose narrative of “Kid A,” another concept album in a completely different way that “O.K. Computer” was a concept album, the thought of “Amnesiac,” an admitted collection of “other songs” done during the “Kid A” sessions, was a little less than thrilling for fans. Who wanted leftovers? The thing is, “Amnesiac” contains some of Radiohead’s best songs, and the term “companion piece” fits well. It might not have the narrative that “Kid A” does, but it certainly feels like it comes from the ideas of that record, with similar themes and at times similar vibe. (Especially compared to their other albums.) Thom has said “Something traumatic is happening in Kid A, and this is looking back at it, trying to piece together what has happened.”

That thought, if you run with my narrative from “Kid A,” is pushed further from the first video from “Amnesiac” for the single “Pyramid Song.” The video shows a being on a station in some water-logged terrain, then diving down to uncover a world now completely submerged.

Check it out… it’s beautiful:

Yeah, it reminds me of “Waterworld” too.

“Amnesiac’s” artwork depicts the album as a book, possibly the story of “Kid A” and the tale or survival. I’m reaching here… but again this is what I see when I listen, and take in the visuals that were presented for the album.

“Amnesiac” is an essential Radiohead album and holds key tracks from their catalog. It is marred by its comparisons to “Kid A” because that record is so concise. But the two together mark what I feel is one of the more interesting creative periods for the band, as well as their most sonically complex. The production on these two records are some of the best I have ever heard and really continued to solidify Radiohead as THE band of the time.

You might think my theories are crack-pot, and Radiohead themselves might agree with you, again simply stating they are just writing “a bunch of pop songs.” “Kid A” fascinates me, and is much more melodic than it gets credit for. I would love to hear your take on the album and what it all means.


Other videos from “Amnesiac”

Knives Out

I Might Be Wrong

No comments: