‘Kid A’ came out ten years ago this week. Is that an anniversary worth marking? Absolutely – but not for the reasons you might think.
The standard critical line has become worn out through over use. Poised to become the world’s biggest band post-‘OK Computer’, Radiohead instead took a courageous leftfield swerve. Consequently, their fourth album has become the set text on how big bands can defy commercial expectations, make “challenging” music and still top the charts. Yadda yadda.
But… how radical was it, really? Dialing down the guitars in favour of keyboards and drum machines is hardly the most unexpected move. It’s not like they suddenly started pumping out booty bass bangers. And the notion of a band becoming commercial refuseniks at the peak of their popularity – well, that’s been done countless times, from Fleetwood Mac with ‘Tusk’ to Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Nebraska’.
Plus, an album can hardly be said to be “difficult” when it contains ‘How To Disappear Completely’ – a straightforwardly beautiful, acoustic-guitar-and-strings ballad – and ‘Motion Picture Soundtrack’, a song Thom Yorke had been playing ever since the ‘Creep’ days (though, tellingly, he axed its sentimental final verse about a “beautiful angel pulled apart at birth”).
Still, it sounded weird enough back in 2000 to wrong-foot critics. NME gave ‘Kid A’ a cautious 7/10 review, calling it the work of a band “scared to commit… emotionally”. Writing for Melody Maker, Mark Beaumont went berserk and gave it 2/10, branding it “look-ma-I-can-suck-my-own-cock whiny old rubbish”. Meanwhile, Nick Hornby echoed a popular view when he called the album “commercial suicide”.
I often think the cool response to ‘Kid A’ is one of those mistakes – like over-praising ‘Be Here Now’ – that record buyers have never really forgiven the music press for. Obviously, consensus has shifted since then: critics now lavish praise on ‘Kid A’. I suspect that’s because, unlike in 2000, everyone has now experienced the likes of ‘The National Anthem’ live, been confronted with evidence that these supposedly inhuman songs are perfectly capable of stirring displays of communal joy.
But anyway. I want to argue that to view ‘Kid A’ in dry historical terms – as a pivot-point in the band’s career – is to miss the point. Its importance resides in the fact that it is, quite simply, Radiohead’s best work.
‘How To Disappear Completely’, in particular, is the ultimate expression of what Yorke had been groping towards on ‘The Bends’ and ‘OK Computer’. “I’m not here. This isn’t happening.” That’s proper existential horror right there. Like all of Radiohead’s best songs, it nails a lurking sense that there’s something poisonous in modernity itself that makes life feel unreal.
But there’s something else about that original NME review that bugs me. It’s the suggestion that ‘Kid A’ is “opaque”, doesn’t mean anything. OK, it’s true that Thom Yorke recorded his vocals after (literally) pulling the lyrics from a hat. But the album is about something. Its working title was ‘No Logo’, inspired by Naomi Klein’s anti-globalisation polemic. Early pressings contained a demonic portrait of Tony Blair, tucked away in the artwork.
And, yes, echoes of that anti-consumerist agenda can be heard in the lyrics. It’s all about ripping holes in the culture of “take the money and run” (‘Idioteque’). A protest album? I don’t think that’s too much of a stretch. But the album’s true centre of gravity is ‘Morning Bell’, and that repeated, “Release me”.
It’s a telling moment, because – like so much great art – ‘Kid A’ is ultimately about self-definition: it’s Thom Yorke’s fuck-you to the forces that would presume to cage him. Ultimately, everything about ‘Kid A’ – its distorted cover art, its obliqueness, its refusal to push easy emotional buttons – can be understood as Yorke telling the world: I’m not that. I’m this.