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Boys in the bubble
Sorry, they can’t come out to play today.
By Jim Irvin. Illustration: Jonathan Burton.

For their fourth album, the nation’s most fascinating band gleefully bury the old formula and piss on its grave. And Parlophone’s Christmas bonuses.

IF WHAT you like about Radiohead are their uplifting, nape-bothering songs, Thom’s majestic singing or Jonny’s “You mistook me for someone who gives a shit” electric guitar, then forget it. You’ll find almost none of that on Kid A, and what little there is is well disguised.
For what we hove here is all about The Pop Group’s Fear Of Pop. This is one of those records where a massively successful band tries its very best to retreat from what made it famous. We’ve seen it many times before, usually on those “difficult second albums” where an out of-the-box sensation decides whether it wants to live like this any longer. Sometimes these records are just to do with dried-up inspiration, when a group’s removed from the source of its material; sometimes they’re a cry for help; sometimes a wilful two-fingers at the industry they’ve come to despise. Whatever, they’re usually awful.
There are some notable exceptions, of course; the one that springs most readily to my mind is Talk Talk’s Spirit Of Eden, also a fourth album following a runaway success, and a quite bewildering exercise in exorcising every molecule of chart appeal and replacing it with something beautiful and strange and timeless. I wouldn’t be surprised if that record was somewhere in Radiohead’s frame of reference when they made this one. But have they achieved it?
Well, I have to say that, upon first listen, Kid A is just awful. I speak as one who thinks there’s no such thing as self-indulgence in art – call it self-expression and surely that’s what we ordered. Art should be about a personal exploration for some greater truth. And that’s precisely what Radiohead managed with OK Computer: challenging, age-defining music which also understood how to move the masses. By comparison, Kid A sounds like a bit of a wank. It’s mixed as if the contents of several studios and four radio wavebands are being factored into the tracks. Actually, it’s less interesting than that. Too often it sounds like the fragments that they began the writing process with – a loop, a riff, a mumbled line of text, have been set in concrete and had other, lesser ideas piled on top. The first thing that’s recognisable as a song is four tracks in. The next is the tenth. The cut-up beats and ambient synths and dubby bass all point to a band who wish they were making obscure white labels for Mo’Wax. You can almost hear the cry go up at the start: “C’mon guys! Let’s underachieve!”
That’s what annoyed this fan initially. Some spurious longing for “credibility” (Pah! what on awful reductive concept that’s been) seems to have robbed Radiohead of their prime delights. There are hints of self-parody too, with Thom mooning about the colours in his head, and cockroaches, and sleeping pills, and being so alone. This is not the precise balancing act they’ve mastered in the past. The closest they come to the stirring ache of a Lucky or a Nice Dream is the closer, Motion Picture Soundtrack, but Thom sings it petulantly, as if his mum’s just spat on her hanky and tried to wipe his cheek in front of the band, and Jonny plays most of it on a pump organ, just to make it negatively chartastic.
My first hearing was conducted prostrate on a giant cushion with a drink in one hand and the music on cans – the perfect prog-rock way to hear music like this. And it still didn’t work.
But the second hearing, on a muddy ghetto-blaster in a sterile office, started to reel me in. It still sounds a mess, but that’s obviously the plan – all the rough edges, bad edits and wack interference allowed to stay where they are. Opening track Everything In Its Right Place (a joke, obviously) is one of the dreariest first tracks ever, but it amply sets the mood – creeping electric piano, a section of solo synth with a muted drum pulse, Thom’s voice cut up, stretched and boiled to a residue. There’s more scene-setting on the title track, five minutes of Thom Sings Stephen Hawking after a kind of distorted musical box start and a lovely jittery drum sound. Three minutes later, a wash of synth arrives; at 4.08 a cut-up boss riff bursts in for eight bars. The patchworking continues on The National Anthem: a minute and a half of bass heralds Thom’s plaintive cry of “Everyone!” and a web of feedback draws aside to let in a fruity horn section and a trombone solo. It all spirals to a cacophonous finish after about six minutes; a last blast of sampled orchestra spins off in a typhoon of tape-echo. Even this last residual noise is tinkered with, shunted into another gear.
Getting the idea? A quarter of an hour in, How To Disappear Completely is the first hint of the Radiohead we know, and, as far as I can tell, the first sign of a guitar, a mournful smear of it establishing the little two-note cascade that becomes the song’s hook. Thom plays the part of someone who has faked their death to wander around Dublin: “I float down the Liffey, I’m not here” That’s followed by the long ambient instrumental Treefingers, which sounds as if it’s played on the sampled overtones of a bell and decorated with wine-glass-rim feedback.
Optimistic, one of the best songs they debuted live recently, is fumbled here. It has a beguiling refrain – where Thom sings, “You tried the best you can/The best you can is good enough” – but the mix is murky, bits of drums and choirs keep arriving, things fall apart. Is it underwritten or overcooked? You can’t tell. After about five minutes it cuts abruptly into In Limbo, another woozy semi-song, in an odd time signature. Again, nothing is left untampered with and Thom’s last words ore mutated into something like a swarm of locusts settling on a speedway truck.
A genuine departure is marked by ldiotecque: frantic drums start out all two-step garage, get distorted to hell and summon forth Thom to deliver cut’n’paste lyrics. “I swallow until I burst/Ice-age coming, ice-age coming.” Reminiscent of Underworld, it falls away into a little e-bowed guitar orchestra on the fade.
Morning Bell is nice – more electric piano and slippery guitars, but Thom was 10 minutes at the lyrics again: “You can keep the furniture/Bump on the head/Falling down the chimney/Release me”. Altogether now!
Finally, Motion Picture Soundtrack has something of Exit Music about it: “Red wine and sleeping pills help me get back to your arms”. A harp glissando sweeps over Jonny’s harmonium and a ‘40s Hollywood choir is glimpsed in the background. When it’s over, the album closes with a lovely tidal wave of harmonic noise.
Kid A is intriguing, eccentric, obviously a grower, but by Radiohead’s standards it can’t help but disappoint. Three of the best songs they unveiled at the Meltdown show – Knives Out, You And Whose Army and Egyptian Song – are not here, neither is the epic Cutooth, keenly anticipated by internet watchers. There are no singles scheduled. Which would suggest that this record’s moody, half-baked charms are just what Radiohead were after – for whatever seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time reason that might be – and that some trump cards are being saved for later. Let’s hope so.