Where This Meets That
I’ve always been fascinated by artists who used early success to drive them to greater experimentation instead of constricted conservatism. The Beatles and U2 are two great examples of bands who pulled it off successfully. Brit-rockers Radiohead joined these ranks beginning with 1997’s OK Computer and sealed the deal with Kid A in 2000.
Radiohead’s 1992 debut Pablo Honey made them a mainstream name, driven by their alternative angst anthem “Creep”. Their 1995 follow up The Bends, with weightier songwriting and more cryptic lyricism, began to separate them from other mainstream “alternative” artists. The Bends’ initial success was limited, but the album eventually became tremendously popular in alternative rock circles. Radiohead was finding a formula for success.
Then they turned that formula on its head.
OK Computer, 1997
The first time I listened to OK Computer, Thom Yorke’s vocals made me more than a little uneasy. It’s not a happy album.
OK Computer is psychologically morbid and scattered. Loosely woven together elements of crushed bugs, extraterrestrials, and political discontent are bound by a theme of paranoia in the face of technology-toppled humanness.
In the opening song, “Airbag”, Yorke sings of the dichotomy of technology when he refers to world war, coma, and car crashes as enablers of rebirth. He sings, “In a fast German car, I’m amazed that I survived; an airbag saved my life,” as though he is reassuring himself about the handover of control to machines.
In “Fitter Happier”, a synthesized monotone voice drones out a catalog of rules interspersed with sentimental memories and emotional reassurances. This strange track is appropriately near the middle of the album where the struggle between freedom and frailty, emotion and logic is heaviest. It could be a robot toying with ideas of what it means to be an emotional creature or vice versa.
By contrast, Yorke’s voice soars beautifully on the closing track, “The Tourist”. Musically, the track is triumphantly atmospheric and sublime, but the words Yorke is so powerfully belting out at the song’s crescendo (“Hey idiot! Slow down, slow down!”) temper the happy ending. They tell us that the fear is real but not so much of our technological advancement but of the blind enthusiasm with which we seem to “hand over the keys” to our great new machines.
Kid A, 2000
There was no intentional thematic continuity between OK Computer and Kid A, but I have always considered the latter to be a sequel. Kid A is the Orwellian world anticipated by OK Computer fully realized.
“Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon,” croons Yorke in the opening track, “Everything in its Right Place”. This picks up the dualism of OK Computer by recalling the bitterness and dread on OK Computer while acknowledging, albeit unconvincingly, that everything is now as it belongs.
One can almost sense the ghost of Winston Smith waking up after his re-education in 1984.
Kid A is a sleek production full of spacious, minimalist soundscapes that diminish guitars in lieu of samples and electronic blips. It’s not pure electronica, however; true to its theme, there is a unique balance between old and new, tradition and innovation.
The hauntingly beautiful “How to Disappear Completely” is buoyed by subtle acoustic guitar and classically arranged strings. The persona, however, is constantly reminding himself that his world is no longer real but virtual, where the old rules no longer apply (“I walk through walls, I float down the Liffey, I’m not here, this isn’t happening.”).
Allusions to political deception and social alienation course throughout the remaining tracks, but the real gem of Kid A is the music itself. Radiohead masterfully blends unique time signatures and an unusual array of instruments to create a deep, palpable world.
Taken together, OK Computer and Kid A represent a band in its prime following a gutsy musical vision probably not approached by any major band since Pink Floyd ruled the mid-1970’s. Radiohead’s subsequent releases, such as Amnesiac and Hail to the Thief followed similar thematic and stylistic paths (Amnesiac came from the Kid A recording sessions) but failed to equal the original otherworldliness of OK Computer and Kid A.
OK Computer and Kid A are easily two of the most important rock albums of the past 25 years.