33 1/3: Kid A

by Marvin Lin

Rating: 3.1/5.0

Publisher: Continuum

It was only a matter of time before Continuum’s terrific, acclaimed 33 1/3 series repeated itself. As a frequent reader of the series, I thought it would be a big canonical artist like Dylan or the Stones who would warrant a second volume, but it turns out to be Radiohead, which is appropriate, as they may be the most lauded band of our time. A volume for OK Computer was released a few years ago, but with the band’s new album just out and Kid A ending up on all sorts of best-of-the-00s lists, this latest entry is well-timed.

As much as I love the series, it has its flaws. There are several common approaches: the straightforward making-of-the-album story, complete with interviews; the what does the album mean angle, replete with pretentious quotes; and, by far the most irritating, the personal reaction, which can just mean some yahoo writing fiction “inspired” by the album, as with PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me. Most involve some combination of the three, but to me the best entries have been the ones they stay focused on how the album was made and on situating it in a specific context. Those of us reading these books don’t really need to be told what an album means, do we?

Marvin Lin’s book on Kid A draws from all three approaches, and mostly does an admirable job of keeping the album at the forefront. It’s far more consistent than Dai Griffiths’ ponderous, academic book on OK Computer, which momentarily made me forget why it’s a great album. Unlike 1997’s {OK Computer}, which was released with little fanfare and only gradually became universally beloved, Kid A, released three years later, was an event album, something that’s becoming largely extinct. There was enormous anticipation and build-up for Kid A though and then, once released, seemingly everyone had an opinion about it. It’s the debate surrounding Kid A, the various meanings that people ascribe to it and the period during which it was released that Lin, co-founder of Tiny Mix Tapes, excels at detailing.

The early chapters analyze how the band built on the innovations of OK Computer, drawing from a wide pool of influences (Krautrock, electronic music, the Warp catalog) and in some ways pointing the way forward for methods of commercial distribution. As Lin writes: “Using an enormous platform from which to disseminate new ideas, new sounds, and new approaches, Radiohead didn’t merely evince an already established aesthetic…Kid A was about change.” For a band so often accused of being avant-garde and experimental, the band members could be quite down to earth about their intentions. Thom Yorke is quoted as saying “We write pop songs” and guitarist Jonny Greenwood claims, “We don’t sit down and ‘Let’s break barriers.’ We just copy our favorite records.”

Though he pulls from plenty of interviews, Lin did not directly interview the band, which is a minor drawback. He makes up for this gap by quoting both contemporary reviews and a host of other writers/thinkers. Radiohead is the type of band that inspires pretentious and over-the-top comments (Pitchfork: “Breathing people made this record!”) and so it’s no surprise that quotations from familiar names in the culture-is-art dept. of criticism (Nietzsche, Adorno, Benjamin) surface. Is it necessary? Not really. It may the reason some people don’t like Radiohead; that is, the amount of critical BS that has been written about them likely turns some people off. You can almost (almost) appreciate the “it’s only rock ‘n’ roll” sentiments of laddish rivals Oasis, who have slagged Radiohead on numerous occasions for being arty and intellectual. Then again, not too many folks are writing books about Oasis.

Like the previous 33 1/3 entry on Pavement’s Wowee Zowee, the book loses momentum towards the end. Lin begins navel gazing and becomes self-critical, trying not just to make sense of the album, but about the very act of music criticism. It turns into some kind of undergrad discourse on time, existence, the way we experience music and things like the “semiotic ambiguity of its sonics.” Sure most critics go through this, but I’m not sure if it’s seemly to do so in print. Lin asks rhetorically, “Is music listening where I should be spending my time?” Who cares? Clearly you are and you wrote a whole book, so get over it. These distractions detract from what Lin does well, namely, portraying the album as both classic (album as statement) and innovative (its wide range of sounds). He makes a case for not just the album, but for everything about it – from its artwork to Radiohead’s website to the band’s politics – as shaping the way we listen to it. It’s a pity Lin muddies up his otherwise insightful analysis with abstraction and existential tangents.

Kid A is the type of album that contains multitudes, which is one of its defining features. It’s likely hardly the last word on Radiohead or this specific record, but Lin’s book is, most of the time, an intelligent and thoughtful discussion of one of modern music’s most provocative, compelling and enigmatic albums.

by Lukas Sherman

See Also: Radiohead- The King of Limbs


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