Album Analysis | Radiohead - Kid A
Having cemented their place as the world’s premier rock band, Kid A marked a significant shift in the band’s sound, approach to songwriting and reflected their change in perspective.
In a 2008 interview with Irish rock journalist, DJ, film critic and broadcaster Dave Fanning, Radiohead guitarist Ed O’Brien reflected on the creation of the band’s fourth album Kid A:
“There’s a great story; one of our managers says that when they first played it for the publishing company, we’d just re-signed with them, they’re expecting like, you know, guitars and so the first song, “Everything in its Right Place”: not a guitar. The second song, “Kid A”: not a guitar. The third song, “The National Anthem”: not a guitar; and they’re literally sweating.”
Released on 2nd October 2000, Kid A saw a dramatic shift in direction for Radiohead, but key to understanding this change is understanding the band’s position at this juncture in their career. Documented in the 1998 documentary film Meeting People Is Easy, the band undertook a staggering tour in support of their 1997 album OK Computer and consequently suffered from exhaustion. Frontman Thom Yorke was particularly burned out, suffering a mental breakdown and writer’s block, growing increasingly resentful of the media and seeing his music become part of the background noise he so vehemently opposed. Recording sessions proved not just tedious, but ultimately futile.
The band decided to change everything: Inspired by his past as a DJ, Yorke began listening almost exclusively to the electronic music championed by Warp Records and spent his spare time wandering around the cliffs of his new home in Cornwall, resolving to write songs solely using a recently purchased grand piano. Tom Waits provided another unlikely source of inspiration for the record. At the time, Yorke said:
"I remember this Tom Waits quote from years ago, that what keeps him going as a songwriter is his complete ignorance of the instruments he's using. So everything's a novelty. That's one of the reasons I wanted to get into computers and synths, because I didn't understand how the fuck they worked.”
This ultimately meant that the role of traditional rock guitars, bass and drums would be minimised and in their place would be synthesisers, drum machines, and, taking cues from jazz and contemporary classical music; strings and brass.
Radiohead would eventually begin work on Kid A in Paris in January 1999 in collaboration with Nigel Godrich, who had previously produced OK Computer. Difficulty with Yorke’s new vision lead to conflict within the band - a big part of this was having to accept that not every member would play on every song. Most of the songs brought to recording sessions were unfinished, some mere sketches with samples and beats and most having no semblance of a clear cut verses or choruses. The band would relocate to Copenhagen before moving again to a mansion in Gloucestershire within a fortnight. Working without a deadline or completed songs rendered the band directionless and they agreed to break up if they could not finish an album they were satisfied with.
By the end of 1999, half a dozen songs, including the album’s title track, were finished. Opening track “Everything In Its Right Place”, the first song Yorke had written for the album, proved to be the turning point of the marathon recording sessions that birthed not only Kid A, but also companion piece and follow-up record; Amnesiac. The song laid a solid foundation for Kid A’s auditory scope, and indicated the collective change in approach to songwriting for the album; particularly in terms of lyrical narrative.
The song was a bold foray into the world of odd time signatures, using a lucid ten-beat phrase; making an ironic juxtaposition between the song’s title and the music and signifying a point of view somewhat out of time with the rest of the world. The harmonies are slightly off-kilter, creating a changing, cagey mood; reflected in the lyric “there are two colours in my head”, coaxing the listener to dig deeper into the meaning of the songs on Kid A. “Everything In Its Right Place” can be viewed as an expression of difficulty in understanding the world we live in; cued by the section where Yorke repeats “what, what was that you tried to say” against skipping, glitch beats and cut and looped backing vocals. The unusual songwriting and storytelling elements essentially project a sense of detachment; instantly distinguishing the song from the rest of Radiohead’s back catalogue.
The second track on the album is its title track; its arrangement and lyrical narrative lending themselves to an oft-cited theory about the album: that it is about the first human clone. Gentle electronic instrumentation is used here to create sounds not unlike those heard from a cot mobile, suggesting infancy. This can be seen as the embryonic state of the band’s ‘Mark II’ or as a character device for the album. Yorke delivers vocals via a vocoder to distort the lyrics, complicating the interpretation but references to children’s stories like The Pied Piper of Hamelin do indicate a childlike state in any case, in tandem with the auditory imagery of infancy. If nothing else, the song further amplifies the disconnect from the rest of the world suggested on “Everything In its Right Place”.
Following the album’s title track is “The National Anthem”, which marks a change in tone and narrative indicated by its distorted fuzz bass and lyrics that convey a sense of disorientation. “Everyone, everyone around here, everyone is so near. It’s holding on. It’s holding on. Everyone, everyone is so near. Everyone has got the fear. It’s holding on. It’s holding on.” Layers of dizzying brass build in counterpoint with the rest of the track, a narrative tool to convey the image of being in the midst of a loud, abhorrent group and not understanding a word anybody is saying amidst the clamour. At this point, it is obvious that Kid A as an album is structured in a very abstract way. “Everything In Its Right Place” introduces the narrative perspective, developed further on the title track through a childlike point of view, while “The National Anthem” brings the logical confusion – the state of mental confusion and migraine caused by trying to make sense of it all.
“How To Disappear Completely” opens with soft, atonal synths to suggest the feeling of the lingering headache Yorke’s persona is suffering after “The National Anthem”, beneath which melodic acoustic guitars and a meandering bassline come to the fore. A two note motif from guitarist/keyboardist Jonny Greenwood’s ondes Martenot pierce through the cloudy atmosphere created by the rest of the instrumentation like a laser beam; while Thom Yorke’s lyrics depict further disillusion, discomfort and detachment.
“Treefingers” is a calmative, ambient piece that follows the emotive collapse of “How To Disappear Completely”, symbolising the inner peace Yorke’s persona finds itself in having cut off from reality. Similarly peaceful is a later track on the album, “In Limbo”, which shifts through differing time signatures glued together by brilliant guitar triplets. The ebb and flows in pitch work in tandem with lyrics about being lost at sea, creating an image of bobbing above and below the surface; perpetually close to drowning, metaphorically representing Yorke’s psychological state in the context of the album, its creation and this point in his life and career.
“Optimistic” can be viewed as either a seething critique on the world’s lack of selflessness or a defiant attempt for Yorke’s persona to pull itself out of its own depression. Following from the ambience of “Treefingers”, the pensive traits of which allowed the narrator to return with a sense of clarity; depending on your perspective the song’s hook can be seen as a spiteful, sarcastic allusion to the world’s empty promises or a declaration of self-determination. What is clear, however, is that the standard, powerful rock instrumentation – featuring muscular drumming courtesy and a gorgeous climbing bassline courtesy of rhythm section Phil Selway and Colin Greenwood respectively – make for the most straightforward arrangement on the album which, if following the album’s narrative, suggests clarity of thought.
“Idioteque” is the album’s key track and centrepiece; cold, icy synths and irritant drum patterns suggesting a distant mood, and matching Yorke’s fast-paced vocal delivery. Lyrically, the song has a narrative, but this has been deconstructed and conveys an abstract point of view which only serves to make it that more captivating and potent. The song’s refrain highlights the frenzy that underpins it, and Yorke’s growth in being better able to interpret the physical world.
The penultimate track, “Morning Bell”, provides a clear, wide soundscape, again suggesting a clarity of thought. Its time signature matches that of “Everything In Its Right Place”, drawing attention to the narrator’s growth since the opening track. Lyrical allusions to divorce (“you can keep the furniture… where’d you park the car?... clothes are all over the furniture… cut the kids in half”) symbolise the narrator’s divorce from reality and suggest a rejection of security as a life goal while also providing the listener with a relatable situational foundation to appreciate Yorke’s emotional journey through Kid A.
On final track, “Motion Picture Soundtrack”, the album’s protagonist appears to divorce himself from life. Against a whimsical, cinematic backdrop, painfully tragic lyrics seem to suggest either a decision to take one’s own life, or to simply cut oneself off from society as the protagonist has come to understand it - begging the question of whether the answer for a person who has only experienced discontent and pain, and fails to communicate or relate to their peers, is to make either decision. While “Treefingers” provided a world of comfort for the album’s narrator, here we find them making a fantasy withdrawal into nothingness. The ambiguity of the song’s meaning is backed up by the silence and ethereal synths that follow the song – is “Motion Picture Soundtrack” a suicide note, the eulogy of Yorke’s persona for this album, or a farewell to the modern society that the album’s narrator no longer wants to partake in?
Either way, what is not ambiguous is the unique approach to songwriting on Kid A. Abstractions are bled into both the music and lyrics, exploring feelings through a point of view that popular music had not quite seen before and perhaps was not ready for. The narrative devices throughout create a persona who views the world in an impressionistic way and therefore, we as listeners cannot help but become emotionally involved.