Radio Ga Ga
Do not adjust your set. Normal service may never be resumed.
Nigel Godrich & Radiohead
Late 1998 to mid 2000
Guillaume Tell Studios, Paris
Medley Studios, Copenhagen
Radiohead’s own studios, Oxfordshire
MAYBE WE SHOULD all get a little perspective on this. Radiohead are five blokes from Oxford; they've been at it nearly 10 years now; their last album was really rather good and now they've made another one – just as their contract stipulates. One of the band is a bit grumpy and instead of having normal, sexy pictures done for their Q interview, they did something funny with their eyes and made themselves look very strange.
To be fair to Radiohead, they've made no secret of being baffled by the palaver surrounding their new album. If some reports are to be believed, so daring, so challenging, so daunting is Kid A that the music industry will crumble around them and S Club 7 will hang their bloodied heads like penitents in the rubble of this once-smug business.
In fact, compared to the five-hour string quartets of Morton Feldman, the freakish jazz of Albert Ayler, the low-frequency oscillations of Pan Sonic or even The Residents or Faust in their terrifying heyday, Kid A is not a million miles from S Club 7. It's got keyboards and drums and singing and lyrics and guitars – if rather less of those last two than some Radiohead fans would like.
But this is disingenuous. It's perfectly fair to say that Kid A is about as experimental as a major rock record can get within the corporate straitjacket that Radiohead despise. It wasn't just pub talk to compare OK Computer to Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon. They bore neat similarities. Both were terrifically dark, knotty, occasionally rhapsodic rock records made by Home Counties grammar school types in Foul moods. And, though OK Computer is the better record, both sent a delicious shiver through the rock audience.
In the time since OK Computer, Radiohead seem to have built up reservoirs of fresh bile, and listened to a lot of Aphex Twin records. As such, Kid A will tax even those who thought Fitter Happier was the catchiest thing on their last record.
IT BEGINS BRILLIANTLY, with a rolling electric piano figure that strives upwards as if on one of MC Escher's impossible staircases, with Thom Yorke's voice – chopped and shaped by Jonny Greenwood – circling the listener's head like a halo of midges. In the midst of this disorienting oddness, the fingers occasional fall on a reassuring chord, but generally the mood is sombre and ambiguous, heightened by nonsense lyrics about “waking up sucking lemons”. One of the best things about Everything In Its Right Place is that when its four minutes are over, you still have no idea what the new Radiohead album is going to sound like.
The title track follows, as beautiful as it is strange, and the first clear indication of what has been playing chez Yorke for the past three years. An extended tintinnabulation where halting and childlike bell motifs pick their way through pattering drums, Kid A's plangent nursery-room vibe recalls Tele:Funken, Plone and more well-known Warp Records stalwarts such as Broadcast and Autechre.
Yorke's voice is blurred and stretched by Pro Tools software into a muted birdcall, dolorously lovely but unintelligible, which brings us to one of the sternest provisos with regard to the whole record. Members of that fraternity which believes Yorke's lyrics on OK Computer to be among the best found on any rock album will be disappointed by how lyrically negligible Kid A is: mumbo-jumbo, snatches of half-remembered dreams, scraps and that's your lot.
The inescapable conclusion is that Yorke is seeking to disappear completely from the equation; an assessment bolstered by a track called How To Disappear Completely. The notion derives from a book of that title, a self-help guide to erasing your past identity and starting afresh, which in Yorke's version seems to entail “floating down the Liffey”, like most of Kid A's lyrics, an air of crabbed inwardness prevails, sung in that distracted moan that, along with reedy Neil Young and deadpan Bernard Sumner, has made Yorke the best non-singer in rock.
Musically, the album's best features are its keening, lapwing guitars and a thin, atonal orchestral drizzle. These submerged details are all over Kid A and are one good reason why it's best enjoyed at home with the lights off rather than alongside a mewling, puking infant on the 10.20 to Worcester Shrub Hill.
This stipulation applies particularly to Treefingers, perhaps the album's clearest acknowledgment of the debt it owes to contemporary electronica: four or so minutes of lambent sound (an elongated guitar sample) that would sit easily on Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Classics or Boards Of Canada's Music Has The Right To Children. Treefingers will not get them bopping in the big tent this autumn but it's clearly of huge symbolic import as a map of the headspace Radiohead – or at least Thom Yorke – currently inhabit.
There are tunes here that will flap that flysheet though. The National Anthem begins as a conventional, gnarly boogie but mutates into something Eric Dolphy or Charles Mingus would have approved of, closing with a splendidly drunken riot of horns. Furthermore, radio programmers will pounce gratefully on Optimistic, the album's most straightforward track, built around Kid A's only guitar riff. It seems to be as good as its word too, Yorke defiantly announcing, “If you try the best you can, the best you can is good enough.”
The segue between Optimistic and In Limbo is Kid A's highlight; the former cooling down into loping jazz before switching into the dark circular groove of the latter. Idioteque is the much mooted dance track, though anyone expecting some cheesy ATB-style trance anthem will be disappointed by the whiny, metallic attack and Yorke's angsty “This is really happening” refrain – it's about as uplifting as Mandrax.
Morning Bell is slight but fascinating, chiefly by virtue of its oblique lyric (“Where'd you park the car”), giving way to Motion Picture Soundtrack, an acoustic version of which was played on the OK Computer tour. Here it is re-set as a Hollywood funeral, complete with harmoniums, heavenly choirs, harp glissandos and Yorke's weary but moving address: “White wine and sleeping pills/help me get back to your arms/I think you're crazy, maybe/l will see you in the next life”. Motion Picture Soundtracks's emotional clout comes from its perplexing compound of what seems to be genuine emotion with processed fakery. There is, inevitably, a hidden track, a minute of glowingly pretty, inconsequential electronic sound.
IN MANY WAYS, Kid A is less a shocking departure than Blur was after The Great Escape, and certainly much less so than Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music was after Sally Can't Dance. Even a cursory acquaintance with OK Computer could tell you that Radiohead were unlikely to learn a few dance steps and cover an old Bee Gees hit. Nevertheless, Kid A will still baffle and upset those who are disappointed that they don't do Creep anymore. The urge to smack Thom Yorke briskly around the chops – Eric and Ernie style – grows more irresistible with each passing day. But. God love 'em, we should be glad that in pop's increasingly bland climate a group like Radiohead can thrive. Here's to their bloody-minded, inspirational cussedness. *** (3 stars)