Essential Listen: Radiohead – Kid A

I was only 4 when Kid A was released to the world for everyone to listen to and interpret. Radiohead teased their upcoming project on TV using little blips of audio and video. Everyone at the time was very excited to see how Radiohead would follow up their critically acclaimed classic ‘OK Computer.’ What nobody expected was for the band to experiment with synthesizers, drum machines, the ondes Martenot, string orchestras and brass instruments instead of their usual rock instruments for their next album set to release Oct 2, 2000. That’s right, this amazingly cohesive electronic art was created in the year 2000 by 5 mortal human souls.

The opening track ‘Everything In Its Right Place‘ is a perfect start to the album Kid A. The first 4 notes and chord lock you in immediately; you know you are in for a journey. Thom starts to sing very confidently that ‘everything is in its right place’, a line that can be interpreted in many ways. Ed begins to manipulate and play back Thom’s voice randomly as Jonny manipulates the synth patch Thom plays on his Prophet 8 synthesizer. The whole song is a very emotional yet serene experience; as Thom sings broken up lyrics pulled from a hat, based on depression, change, confusion, and the state of the world at the time, all while trying to find a place in a confusing existence.

Next on the tracklist, ‘Kid A‘ is one of the more challenging songs on Radiohead’s fourth LP. The song is composed of lullaby-like synths with robotic jazz drumming and heavily compressed vocals from Thom. The song sounds very alien like in the most cohesive and confident way. At first glance, you may miss the dissonant beauty hidden within this song. The song has a very creepy vibe in a weirdly relatable way. Thom’s lyrics here are clearly referencing politics and literature, but are broken up randomly because they were drawn from a hat. My favourite line from this song is “Standing in the shadows at the end of my bed.” Thom can be interpreted as referencing depression or could be referencing sleep paralysis. The fact 5 people were able to make a song that sounds like this is beyond me.

The most chaotic song on Kid A is definitely ‘The National Anthem.‘ The song starts with a loud siren sound followed by a grungy looped bass riff written by Thom at age 16, and a loud rock beat by Phil on the drums. There are tons of interesting electronic sounds throughout the soundscape as the song pushes ahead full steam. Thom sings about loneliness and isolation through a vocal filter with slight feedback. These artistic choices add to the sense of anxiety and isolation the broken up lyrics bring to the song. Halfway through the song a bunch of jazz horns come in and begin to solo over the bass line and rock beat at the same time; the effect caused is complete chaos. This song is the exactly what anxiety feels like. This song makes me realize that humans are crazy. Chaos and randomness can be oddly beautiful sometimes.

The second-to-most heartbreaking song on Kid A is ‘How To Disappear Completely.‘ The song starts off with a very ugly note played on the strings and an acoustic guitar playing a sombre chord progression. Thom sings ‘I’m not here, this isn’t happening’ which is about a dream he had where he found himself as a ghost floating through the city. The aesthetic of the instrumentals and the vocals in this song dovetail nicely, resulting in an almost impressionistic effect, wherein the band sonically recreates the sensations and mental states of those fleeting, dreamlike or seemingly-hallucinatory glimpses of our universe. Every time I listen to this song I am taken to another world, it is very beautiful. Towards the end, Thom sings beautifully as the song begins to sound like it is falling apart. When all hope is lost Thom comes back in sounding like an angel bringing the instrumental to a beautifully haunting end.

Treefingers‘ is a perfect palate cleanser for Kid A; after the first 4 songs, you need a little bit of a break to digest what you just experienced. ‘Treefingers’ is an atmospheric song where Thom plays very relaxing chords through a beautiful synth patch, Ed plays with bends and feedback on his guitar, while Jonny plays dreamlike notes on the xylophone. The song is slightly repetitive and long which causes it to become easily lost in. This song sounds like what I would imagine an alien rainforest equivalent would sound like.

After the interlude, we are greeted with the most ‘rock-like’ song on Kid A, ‘Optimistic.’ The instrumental and production on this song are amazing. Between the crunchy rock guitar, the rock rhythm section, and Thom yelling his lyrics passionately this song has an amazing vibe for what it is about. Thom writes in ‘Optimistic’ about the desolation of the consumerism market, describing the greedy cutthroat industry through metaphors. Thom then begins to sing ‘You can try the best you can, the best you can is good enough.’ This can be interpreted in many ways as the lyrics are quite abstract. At the end of the song the band jams hard to the chord progression and at the very end flips the song entirely into a jazz bit for 20 seconds; it is brilliant.

After finally finding some confidence through your listen of Kid A you stumble upon ‘In Limbo.’ This song encompasses the exact feeling of being stuck ‘in limbo.’ The song is truly mesmerizing as a synth piano plays a psychedelic chord progression, repetitive guitar loops, and drums constantly play fills. Thom mumbles lyrics about being lost, not being able to read his messages. All of Thom’s lyrics leave you feeling trapped, or lost and anxious. My favourite line is when Thom sings ‘you’re living in a fantasy world, a beautiful world.’ Thom is saying that people see what they want to see instead of the truth, which can be very relatable. Towards the end, the song begins to fall apart and becomes a mess of delay, white noise, and electronic buzzing which flawlessly transitions into the next song.

The next song on Kid A is titled ‘Idioteque.’ Perhaps the greatest departure from their earlier sound ‘Idiotque’ is a beat and sample driven song. Jonny plays a beat through a modular synth and plays around with the samples as the song goes on. A sample of Paul LanskyMild – Und Leise is used throughout the song which adds an anxious human-like vibe to the rather sparse soundscape. Thom sings about the paranoia of encroaching technology: the central image of the song is a nuclear holocaust as well as global warming. He sings the lyrics as if he was a madman mumbling about madness; although in this case his ramblings are justified as nuclear holocaust and global warming are almost too real. Towards the end of the song, Thom rambles while the modular drum samples fly out of control, at the very end a sound I can’t even properly describe flows into the next song perfectly.

The second to last song on Kid A is ‘Morning Bell‘; a song about a divorce. The instrumental on this song is one of my favourites on Kid A, the soft piano chords, the repetitive bass line, and Thom’s very graphic lyrics. Thom sings very violent lyrics saying to ‘cut the kids in half’ and that ‘nobody wants to be a slave.’ Thom sings ‘release me’ which makes it seem the narrator uses physical images of abuse to symbolically illustrate how badly she treated him emotionally. Phil Selway playing in 5/4 on this song is the most impressive thing about the song, in my opinion, he plays the time signature confidently, purposely making the drums sound psychedelic. The jam toward the end of this song is one of my favourite Kid A moments, everything sounds so perfect.

Motion Picture Soundtrack‘ is one of the most heart-wrenching songs by Radiohead ever. A very moody sounding organ plays a chord progression that starts to pull at your heart and make you feel nostalgic and sad. Thom sings lyrics about trying to substitute someone you love after a break-up with fake happiness. Thom then sings ‘I think you’re crazy maybe’ which sends chills down my spine every time I think about it. The lyrics can obviously relate to the person who left the narrator in this sad state, but in my eyes, Thom is also talking to the listener. The line ‘I think you’re crazy maybe’ encompasses the whole Kid A vibe and wisdom. It is interpreted that this song is a suicide song, which is sad but can also be very real. Angelic harps begin to play beautiful twinkles while angelic voices are heard. Thom reminds you that life is not like the movies, they lied, finding true happiness in life is almost impossible. To end the album Thom sings ‘I will see you in the next life.’ which is a musical moment I will cherish for the rest of my life. This song is the perfect ending to the album Kid A, it wraps everything up perfectly.

Overall, Kid A is a revolutionary album for its time. Nothing sounded anywhere near on this level in the year 2000. This album is the most cohesive, weird, amazing, and the beautiful musical project created by a group of people ever. I can not wrap my head around the fact the band was capable of conveying the emotion, intensity, and message so clearly not only through the lyrics but through the instrumentation of the whole band as a whole and Nigel Godrich who produced alongside Thom for the whole album. The album artwork created by Stanley Donwood and Thom is a computer rendering of a pixelated mountain with a distortion of the cover near the bottom. Donwood painted colourful oil paintings and used knives and sticks as tools to create a sharp texture. The image they created had the colours inverted to add to the vibe of the album. The artwork conveys the music vibe of the album very well.


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