Radiohead debuts new style

Eight things that I think are true about Kid A, the new Radiohead album:

One: It’s the first of the band’s four LPs that doesn’t consciously attempt to obsolete its predecessor. The Bends exposed Pablo Honey as the rough draft it was; OK Computer, in turn, made The Bends’ understanding of alienation seem too U2-anthemic, too standardized, too publicly presentable to keep resonating. Advance reviews, by and large, have made Kid A out as something of a rebuke to OK Computer – rock is dead, so is our last album, get over it – but that’s an incredibly deceptive angle to take.

The fact is that, where each of Radiohead’s previous albums – even the often sloppy Pablo Honey – came wrapped in a conceptual gloss that made for a sum-greater-than-its-parts sense of righteous purpose, Kid A is resolutely small. It’s fragmented (at times bordering on incoherent) and low-key enough to suggest that its wild experimentation is an organic development, not a kiss-off to history or genre.

Not that it matters.

Two: It might not be anti-rock, but it doesn’t have much interest at all in rock form. “The National Anthem” opens with a rumbling bassline that propels the song for its full six minutes, but it quickly digresses into (pretty fantastic) free jazz. “Optimistic” has something of a tribal jangle, but its chorus feels to me like one of the album’s most willfully obtuse moments (you can almost hear it scratching to avoid a “Black Star”-esque payoff).

Those moments aside, Kid A owes more to Aphex Twin, Autechre and DJ Shadow than to any potential rock roots (including, arguably, its own). It’s not for nothing that the title track sounds like Laurie Anderson circa Big Science. As a touchstone for the album, “Kid A” – imagine 21st century elevator music pockmarked with ruminations from a tremendously vocoderized Thom Yorke – is purposefully elusive and thin. Ambient electronica dominates the largely irrelevant instrumental “Treefingers” and the truly great “Idioteque” and, while the rest of the album is marginally more grounded in standard form, it’s the bleeps and chirps that really act as its character witnesses.

Three: Which is to say: this is avant garde music. At this point, Radiohead’s marriage of high-art obscurantism with rock historiography (they might have given up on rock as a formal conceit, but not as an historical one, as the Automatic for the People-era R.E.M. rip on “Optimistic” proves) is one of the most academically thrilling things out there right now.

Four: Commercially, it will be a disaster.

Five: It only works as an album because sonically, it’s seductive stuff. Only “The National Anthem” and “Idioteque” give the rhythm section much to do, and just a fewof the songs have choruses per se. What’s left amounts to a grand sort of tone poem: short on hooks, long on atmosphere. Kid A is proof that band members weren’t kidding when they professed their love of the similarly enthralling German art-rockers of the ’70s. More importantly, it’s proof that Radiohead still wants to be – and often is – a viscerally thrilling band.

The two best songs on Kid A – “How to Disappear Completely” and “Motion Picture Soundtrack” – are, not coincidentally, the album’s two unabashed heartbreakers: all strings, angelic backing vocals, etc. They’re harrowingly frail, and I think that’s precisely why there’s only two of them: any more, and the album would probably collapse. This is a genuinely scary thing, and I think it might be the first time since My Bloody Valentine’s heyday when I’ve heard a band in such control of its métier that it can make things more beautiful by knowing how to withhold beauty. In an old review of another band, critic Greil Marcus wrote that in their music, “even as you felt the Pleasure, you felt it being taken away:” that’s entirely true of Kid A, and I think it might be the album’s driving force.

Six: Another reason for Kid A’s fragmentary nature: thematically, it’s about as close to approximating dystopia as any rock album I’ve heard. Song after song obsesses over departure and exemption – “That’s not me. . .this isn’t happening,” moans Yorke on the disc’s great tearjerker; another song is called “In Limbo” – and it’s easy to see why: modern life isn’t just rubbish, it’s rootless.

Even the allegedly Dadaist lines that pepper the album’s first few songs – “Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon,” “We’ve got heads on sticks and you’ve got ventriloquists” – sound genuinely horrified with their own meaninglessness. And so, sonically, the album strives for transcendence through weightlessness: Kid A delights in distorting and downplaying Yorke’s magnificent voice, but more often than not it’s entirely dependent on his eerie falsetto.

Seven: The album’s greatest bit of willful contrarianism is this: it’s frontloaded with much of its most outré music. After the opening five-song storm (an amelodic drone, a vocoder experiment, a free jazz number, an honest-to-God ballad and an ambient instrumental), Kid A settles down somewhat, as if it starts to find a way to deal with its own scattered impulses. It might not make sense, but it hints at sense.

Eight: It’s not the best album I’ve heard this year, but it’s certainly the most full of ideas, and it’s pretty great.

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