Music

Radiohead’s Kid A turns 20: A retrospective

Kid A is often cited as one of the greatest albums ever made. A paragon of experimental music, the album builds on the off-piste style of OK Computer to become what many, including myself, would argue is the band’s strangest album, not only sonically but structurally too. Its inspirations range from Talking Heads and R.E.M to Aphex Twin, but it’s an album that could only have been made by Radiohead. 

Before its release, critics were hoping for more of OK Computer’s powerful, guitar-focused rock riffs, but instead they were offered an album that dismissed the commercial and embraced muffled vocals, electronic instrumentation, and looping song structures. For these reasons, its release could be considered a critical failure, but in the years following, it has become essential to the Radiohead discography. 

The unique sonic landscape of Kid A was heavily inspired by the ambient electronic music of artists like Aphex Twin, whom Yorke listened to heavily following a mental breakdown from supporting OK Computer. If we take Kid A as a grouping of this ambient style and the band’s earlier work, we see that it is an entirely natural progression for Radiohead to make. The commercialisation of their previous album and the extensive touring schedule provoked the production of an experimental album that allowed them to bend their definition as artists. Let’s take a look at some of the tracks on the album and discuss what made it such a divisive release. 

Kid A’s opening track is “Everything in its Right Place.” The first notes show a distinct change in style from OK Computer’s “Airbag,” which opened with distorted guitars. ‘Everything in its Right Place’ is a perfect opener to set the tone of the album; however, it is also where a listener might first voice disdain. Its claustrophobic sound diverges from OK Computer’s melancholy but endless horizons, with instruments in flux and tightly packed. The lyrics are particularly weird and repetitive, featuring lines like “Yesterday I woke up sucking on a lemon” and “There are two colours in my head/ What is that you tried to say.” This song-writing style was inspired by Talking Heads, with Thom Yorke writing random snippets and sequencing them together rather arbitrarily. It gives the song, and the album, a dreamlike quality with a lot of room for interpretation. 

“How to Disappear Completely” is a representation of Yorke feeling disconnected. It is often cited as one of Radiohead’s most depressing songs. The instruments blend in a display of gothic existentialism, as Yorke dissociates, murmuring: “That there, that’s not me.” According to Yorke, it was written about a dream he had about floating around Dublin, with this initial line coming from advice that R.E.M frontman Michael Stipe gave him to deal with tour stress. The haunting vocals accompanied by strings create a sense of the ethereal, as if drifting alone on an endless void. No songs on OK Computer come close to replicating this sound, showing how Yorke’s mental state at the time inspired Kid A’s unique out-of-body imitation.It can be seen from these two songs that Kid A has a certain strange beauty that is difficult to describe. Its recapturing of dream and dissociation is a powerful one and allows for an intimate relationship between the listener and Yorke himself, as his lyricism tells of a conflicting mental landscape that is translated into the ethereality of Kid A’s claustrophobic dreamworld.

13/10/2020

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James Ward


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