The unbearable heaviness of being [a]Radiohead[/a] continues. Following the equivalent birth pains of a medium-sized galaxy, ‘Kid A’ arrives amidst the most fantastic stories of artistic constipation: abortive recording sessions, writer’s block, band members wondering just what the hell it was they were meant to be doing, Doomsday scenarios around every corner. Seemingly overwhelmed by the exorbitant praise heaped upon ‘OK Computer’, [a]Radiohead[/a] elected to get in touch with their avant-garde side, that time (dis)honoured escape clause in the white liberal rock star’s lexicon of [I]How To Deal With Success[/I]. But although they might disavow the process, [a]Radiohead[/a] have been complicit in their own deification through sheer aptitude. Now, predictably, in attempting to reinvent themselves as a more elusive entity, they’ve made a record that by its mere existence will only heighten the intrigue and intensify their global cult.
At least the rash of anaemic surrogates hurried along to quench the market’s demand for overwrought introspection during the post-‘OK Computer’ hiatus are rendered in deservedly unforgiving perspective from the outset. ‘Everything In Its Right Place’ is a pointed opener – one fondly imagines Thom Yorke practising his most disdainful Mark E Smith sneer and muttering, “Notebooks out, plagiarists”. A beautiful triumph of understatement, it bubbles forth upon tactile swathes of electric piano and Yorke’s cut-up wordless vocals. When he does emerge from the deconstructivist frenzy, it’s to scatter a bunch of gnomic phrases: “Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon”.
Were the entire record comprised of such wilful obfuscation, then the perpetrators could be rightly accused of copping out completely, but it seems [a]Radiohead[/a]’s instincts for the passionate grand gesture are too strongly ingrained. ‘How To Disappear Completely’ heralds a return to the big ballad template, as massed strings swoon and Yorke‘s voice soars transcendentally for the first time, while ‘Optimistic’ is the cue to give a plausible impression of a live rock band. Y’know, like featuring drums, guitars – this group used to employ three of those, you may recall – and a fully plugged-in singer declaiming apocalyptically about big fish eating little ones. It’s great, but lest anyone forget where much of [a]Radiohead[/a]’s mid-’90s renaissance stemmed from, it sounds a lot like REM, specifically ‘Monster’-period REM rewriting ‘Country Feedback’. And this after a mid-album ambient instrumental, another device fondly employed by the esteemed Athenians.
Thus far, ‘Kid A’ has provided stuff old, new, borrowed and, as ever, blacker than blue. Without consistently engaging the heart, this has been a cool experience. But hereafter, and one superlative song aside, it rather loses its nerve. Of the remaining four tracks, ‘In Limbo’ meanders nowhere particularly interesting, proving it takes more than a tricky time signature to sustain a non-song. The edgy ‘Morning Bell’ is much better, promising to rend the heavens with immolatory guitar, but reining back just as it’s really pushing out. And ‘Motion Picture Soundtrack’ is a sorely anticlimactic closer, the kitchen sink arrangement singularly failing to disguise the lack of anything substantial underneath.
It’s the one track that stands furthest from one’s expectations of how [a]Radiohead[/a] sound that represents the album’s saving grace. Naff in title and quite gauche in its stab at garage-noir, ‘Idioteque’ is a nonetheless brilliantly persuasive two-step litany of paranoia, fear and unease. Yorke sings it like he means it – “Women and children first/I laugh until my head comes off/I’ve seen too much/You haven’t seen enough/This is really happening/Take the money and run” – and suddenly [a]Radiohead[/a]’s amorphous external agenda assumes some kind of shape.
And here’s the rub: for better or worse, [a]Radiohead[/a] have always been about something, be it the loathing of self or the human condition in general, and the ramifications thereof. Yet it seems in a desire to quash the rampant air of significance suffusing their every movement and utterance, they’ve rather sold short the essence of their art. Yorke‘s presence is opaque – what better way for a reluctant generational spokesman to abdicate responsibility than by saying nothing much at all? Anyone who’s seen the band live this year or pillaged the Internet realises there’s songs recorded during the ‘Kid A’ sessions that are at least the equal of anything here. Now while these will presumably appear in some form in due course, their inclusion on this album would have made it an inestimably stronger work, broader in scope and more potent in impact. Who knows, maybe more fun to listen to.
But heaven forbid, that might mean even more outlandish plaudits for the poor lambs to contend with. For all its feats of brinkmanship, the patently magnificent construct called ‘Kid A’ betrays a band playing one-handed just to prove they can, scared to commit itself emotionally. And isn’t that what this is supposedly all about?