Starting again is never easy, but it’s often essential. For Radiohead, they’d reached their limit with the opulent grandeur of their 1997 art-rock masterpiece ‘OK Computer’ and the pressures of the matching stratospheric success that came with it. They had to become a new band again.
Arena choruses and melodic guitars were out, for a start. In came a fractured montage of jazzy sounds, krautrock beats, ambient atmosphere, electronica and millennial dread, as frontman Thom Yorke squawked of an “ice age coming” and a world where “everyone has got the fear” on the reinvention that was ‘Kid A’ in 2000. With ample material left over, the band then released the sister record ‘Amnesiac’ a year later which contained more ‘traditional’ Radiohead songs – but it still felt like a brave, new, dystopian world.
The move was predicted at the time to be career suicide (this was when Coldplay and Travis took their melancholy indie format and slapped a stadium-ready smile across its face), but is today seen as a vital moment in the survival of Radiohead, the evolution of ‘indie’ and providing a soundtrack for the dumpster fire century to follow.
20 years on, these two records are now being celebrated with ‘Kid A Mnesia’. With ‘Kid A’ and ‘Amnesiac’ being housed together for the first time, they make for a pretty perfect double album. We don’t need to review them again, mind, that would be silly. So let’s get our teeth into something new…ish. The third disc, ‘Kid Amnesiae’, offers fans 12 tracks of “half-remembered, half-forgotten sessions and unreleased material”. But did they find fluff or cash beneath the sofa cushions?
Radiohead, probably more so than any artist this writer can think of, have a colourful and successful history of resurrecting and repurposing their old tracks. Take ‘Nude’, a fan favourite rarity for a decade after it was first played live as ‘Big Ideas’, which resurfaced as a highlight of ‘In Rainbows’ in 2007. Then there’s the recordings of the devastating ‘True Love Waits’, which gained cult status in the years following its first performance in 1995 before it later appeared in a polished new form as the closer of 2016’s ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’. And we mustn’t forget the agonising 21-year wait for the studio versions of ‘Lift’ and ‘Man Of War’ before they finally appeared on 2017’s ‘OK Computer’ reissue.
Following that same legacy, ‘Follow Me Around’ is probably the most sought-after of the long-lost tracks that are presented on ‘Kid Amnesiae’. It was first heard briefly during a soundcheck scene in the band’s 1998 documentary Meeting People Is Easy – a difficult film about Radiohead’s rapid growing pains following the success of ‘OK Computer’. You can really feel those anxieties here. Sonically, led by acoustic darkness and vocoders, it’s the bridge to the ‘Kid A’ era, while Yorke achingly sings of the tensions, paranoia and pressures that came with a life he didn’t ask for: “Nowadays I get panicked, I cease to exist… I feel absolutely nothing”. It’s a Holy Grail song for Radiohead fans, and well worth the wait.
Elsewhere, the previously unheard ‘If You Say The Word’ is a sombre, lush but restrained cousin and companion to ‘How To Disappear Completely’. Beyond that, disc three is comprised of different versions of songs from the two records. The ‘Why Us?’ take on ‘Like Spinning Plates’ adds more full-bodied flourishes to the sound, as well as an alternative soaring vocal take and, most interestingly, an extra verse with new lyrics at the start as Yorke mourns: “I’m not someone else, the cameras are turning off”.
The ‘Again Again’ version of ‘Fog’ adds some spectral elements and gentle waltzing drums to this old curio, making the idea of “baby alligators in the sewers” and the notion that “anything you want can be done” seem all the more playful and innocent. ‘Pulk/Pull’ blends its dark, dissonant soundscape with the vocals from ‘True Love Waits’ to pretty beautiful effect, and ‘The Morning Bell (In The Dark version)’ does exactly what it says on the tin: revealing a much more skeletal and macabre spin on the ‘Kid A’ cut.
The sparse and haunting instrumental ‘Pyramid Strings’ wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Yorke’s recent horror soundtrack to Suspiria, and an orchestral take from ‘How To Disappear Completely’ shows off the soulful, cinematic side of the band – and the elements that keep Jonny Greenwood so busy scoring movies for the most part of his career these days. Held together by the three twitchy electronica ‘Untitled’ vignettes and the sinister alternative rendition of the B-side ‘Fast Track’, ‘Kid Amnesiae’ feels like as much a complete album as you could hope for.
Casual Radiohead fans of ‘No Surprises’ and the bangers will likely find little pleasure here. If you were someone who stood at the back at Glastonbury the other year waiting for ‘Creep’ then look elsewhere, but if you’re a hardcore completist then dive right right in. Ultimately, ‘Kid Amnesiae’ not only offers a mood piece, but also a companion and secret history behind the making of two essential, landmark records – and the rebirth of a great band.
Release date: November 5
Record label: XL Records