Invisible Soundtrack

On Kid A, Radiohead learns to disappear -- then reappear -- completely

 "Before I was married, or knew a lot of women, I would just pull down all the shades and go to bed for three or four days. I'd get up to shit. I'd eat a can of beans, go back to bed, just stay there for three or four days. Then I'd put on my clothes and I'd walk outside, and the sunlight was brilliant, and the sounds were great. I felt powerful, like a recharged battery. But you know the first bring-down? The first human face I saw on the sidewalk, I lost half my charge right there. This monstrous, blank, dumb, unfeeling face, charged up with capitalism -- the "grind." And you went "Oooh! That took half away." But it was still worth it, I had half left. So, yeah, leisure. And I don't mean having profound thoughts. I mean having no thoughts at all. Without thoughts of progress, without any self-thoughts of trying to further yourself. Just ... like a slug. It's beautiful." -- Charles Bukowski

Radiohead has uncovered a delicate, elusive line, and lives there, on Kid A.
Radiohead has uncovered a delicate, elusive line, and lives there, on Kid A.

If you think of Radiohead's new Kid A as a sort of continuation of the sentence that begins, "OK, computer ..." the record makes perfect sense, as though the band had sat down around a conference table with The Computer and held an arbitration session, pleading and arguing with the machine, trying to reason with it, convince it to agree to some sort of compromise -- and talked and talked and talked, with blinds pulled and the jittery fluorescent lights beaming as the day passed into night, the nights into months, as all sense of time morphed into a sort of chrono-slug. Radiohead, the guitar band, the band with the ability to concentrate a brick of energy inside guitars, bass drums and Thom Yorke's magical voice, spending months with the computer, locked in a dust-free room until the pink and blue and green and red had turned into that weird beige-gray and no longer was it clear whether the sun or moon was up or whether the band was the computer or the computer was the band. "I've lost myself," sings Thom Yorke on "In Limbo," halfway through the record. And because of what's surrounding him -- or not surrounding him -- there's little doubt he's nearly gone.

That's the sound of Kid A, the sound of Radiohead being funneled through a computer and vice versa: Those melodies are still there, as are those questions, those concerns, those standard Radiohead tones and structures. But they're different -- an obvious appreciation for beauty, an examination of it inside different sounds. It's not really what you'd expect from a band whose mastery of the rock song went unequaled through much of the '90s, but it's most definitely not a Metal Machine Music fuck-you (as Nick Hornby suggested in last week's New Yorker, referencing Lou Reed's 1975 feedback-fest). Those, like Hornby, without a reference point may at first be baffled by many of the songs on Kid A, specifically those that aren't "Optimistic" or "How to Disappear Completely," the two songs that most closely resemble 20th-century Radiohead; they'll be lost in the whirlpool of freaky sounds and structures, confused by Thom Yorke's synthesized tongue, the electro beats and the huge aural washes that consume songs whole. You need a context.

Many assessments of the record have suggested the band has made a "post-rock" record; others have called it an electronic rock record. But Kid A is really more a computer record, the same way the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper was a studio record; whereas the latter was produced after months on end spent inside a studio, unleashing the power of the then-new recording technology, the former was produced after months spent inside a computer inside a studio, searching for the boundaries inside the box. Call it what you want; all that matters is that it's a really cool record, one that tethers its rope to an unsecured buoy. There's a center, though it's impossible to say what it is. But the way in which the record floats from idea to idea and from structure to structure, seemingly lost but not really because of its ability to retain a beautiful cohesion throughout, is remarkable, especially for a band that's learning a new language.

Superficially, Kid A seems self-indulgent -- Sergeant Pepper certainly was. Where are the hooks, the riffs? But the record is really the picture of restraint; given the multitude of sonic possibilities in the making of computer music (doubters are directed to Revolve Records on Delmar; pop on a pile of techno 12-inches and then shut up), the wide-open spaces and the oft-lean landscapes Radiohead has constructed are awe-inspiring. They could have piled effects on top of effects on top of effects and created a mess, as most fledgling computer composers do. They didn't, and after a few servings you'll come to realize that the record's not "difficult"; any song that contains a melody -- and only a couple don't -- lays it right there before you and concentrates on it for the duration of the song. It's how they address these melodies that's new.

Radiohead: One song, "Creep," built in a world that had just gone gaga for "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and "Loser," puts them on the map. They subsequently tour with their idols, R.E.M.; create one of the five best rock records of the '90s, The Bends; follow that with another one of the weirdest, best rock records of the '90s, OK Computer; release a documentary that is one of the most disorienting and brilliant ever made about a rock & roll band, Meeting People Is Easy. All of a sudden, Radiohead is Important, and critics burden them with the notion that it's up to the band to save rock & roll.

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