At the turn of the millennium, Thom Yorke declared rock music dead. The mythology of the genre weighed on him and he felt that rock had “run its course.” Burnt out from the arduous promotion and touring for the landmark OK Computer—itself an innovative shift away from more familiar rock forms—Yorke experienced a mental breakdown and was riddled with writer’s block. Every time he picked up a guitar he would get “the horrors,” and whenever he began penning a new song he would stop and, “hide it away in a drawer, look at it again, tear it up.” Ultimately, Kid A would go on to change the musical landscape forever because of the aural collage Yorke and his bandmates assembled from those many scattered pieces.

Yorke’s writer’s block and disillusionment with the kind of musical influences that had made Radiohead famous led him to start listening to a lot more electronic artists and music. Immersing himself in the IDM of Aphex Twin and Autechre, Yorke also drew inspiration from krautrock, jazz and the avant-garde flourishes of Björk. But he wasn’t the only one feeling pressure to do something different. Drummer Phil Selway worried about OK Computer’s global success turning them into a one-trick pony. Bassist Colin Greenwood, “felt [they] had to change everything.” The problem was deciding how to complete such a reinvention.

Despite guitarist Ed O’Brien’s hope that the band’s OK Computer follow-up would include “snappy” guitar melodies, Yorke instead lost himself in creating textures and rhythms that were rarely congealing into anything more than snippets. Yorke claimed to have no further interest in melody, calling all melodies, “a complete embarrassment.” Splitting into two groups to tinker with different parts of their new aims, the band agreed that failure to complete this challenge would lead them to calls it quits. Radiohead reached a point where their next album would either remake or break them.

Experimentation led to drum machines, modular synthesizers and, most notably, the ondes Martenot, the instrument responsible for the album’s eeriest tones. Yorke’s IDM influences saturated these efforts, drawing inspiration from wordless music that nevertheless created textures that moved him as powerfully as the most emotive guitar-rock vocals. But not everyone in Radiohead was initially keen on Yorke’s shift in direction. Understandably, guitarists O’Brien and Jonny Greenwood were a little worried about the implications of including fewer guitars and the fact that each member would no longer be necessary on every track. Jonny feared their efforts may be seen as, “random digital experimentation” and his brother Colin worried they may end up with, “some awful art-rock nonsense.” Even producer Nigel Godrich, with whom the band made OK Computer, was puzzled as to why Radiohead would change a good thing.

Ultimately, these experiments in songsmithing—combined with numerous changes of recording venues and no set deadline—led to the momentous achievement that is Kid A. The album would transform Radiohead from a global phenomenon into the essential 21st century band. In-depth analysis of the album’s lyrics is a largely fruitless endeavor, as Yorke often literally picked words and phrases out of a hat. Even the Kid A title was meant to project a “non-meaning” and was simply named after one of the band’s sequencers.

That’s not to say the words play no part in the album’s tone. On “How to Disappear Completely,” Yorke’s refrain of “I’m not here/ This isn’t happening,” is derived from a similar mantra told to him by Michael Stipe to ward off performance anxiety. And the “Try the best you can/ The best you can is good enough” chorus of “Optimistic” was pulled from encouragement given to Yorke by his partner. Elsewhere, the chosen words and phrases contribute to the album’s overall atmosphere. “Everything in Its Right Place” opens the album with an OCD carryover effect from OK Computer’s themes of alienation, lemon-sucking non sequitur notwithstanding. The album’s lyrical imagery is imbued with the sense that all is not right. There are images of unsettling fantasy worlds and trap doors throughout “In Limbo,” and bleak cataclysm references pop up in “Optimistic” and repeat throughout “Idioteque.” But the words are only there to paint a broader picture as Yorke’s voice is often manipulated to the point of becoming another instrument. Radiohead refused to release liner notes, citing that the lyrics are not meant to be considered separately from the music.

The band employed unique recording techniques from track to track. For the previously demoed “The National Anthem” – a track previously considered for an OK Computer B-side – the brass section musicians were instructed to “sound like a traffic jam,” and Yorke was so kinetic in his conducting that he claims to have broken his foot. Jonny Greenwood used his formal music theory education to singlehandedly create an elaborate string arrangement through multi-tracking on “How to Disappear Completely.” Yorke’s vocals on “Kid A” are merely spoken and then vocoded. The ambience of “Treefingers” was the result of Yorke digitally processing O’Brien’s guitar. “Motion Picture Soundtrack” found Yorke on a harmonium, and the body of “Idioteque” was excised from a 50-minute recording of Jonny Greenwood’s experimentation. They ended up with so much material that much of it was held over for 2001’s Amnesiac.

Such a hotly anticipated album that goes so far into left field was bound to be met with some degree of puzzlement. Though Kid A debuted at the top of the charts in both the UK and US, not all critics initially knew what to make of it. In The New Yorker, Nick Hornby dismissed it as self-indulgent and forgettable. Other reviews were more mixed. But once critics had enough time to process the album, it was universally acclaimed. Rolling Stone, Pitchfork and The Times would eventually go on to declare Kid A the best album of the decade.

As much as The Bends delivered Radiohead from the morass of just another post-grunge throwaway and OK Computer entrenched them as rock royalty, Kid A saw the band tearing down the castle around themselves and reassembling it as a minimalist art installation. There was chaos in the ramshackle construction and incalculable risk in cavalierly tossing away the tools they had learned to wield with such precision. But the end result was nothing less than iconic and transcendent art.

  • Holy Hell! Kid A Turns 20

    Kid A in 2000 was as cold and angular as its cover art. Kid A in 2020 is a far easier list…
  • EOB: Earth

    O'Brien puts his decades of experience in Radiohead to use in creating a diverse but not d…
  • Concert Review: Thom Yorke

    Yorke seemed downright gleeful to be performing for us, smiling and dancing his way across…
  • Revisit: Idiocracy

    Just as Mike Judge’s lampooning of cubicle culture in Office Space feels like a relic fro…
  • Oeuvre: Miyazaki: Ponyo

    Our goldfish-turned-human obtains her agency by adding to the human world the vibrancy of …
  • Children of the Sea

    Once the kaleidoscopic spectacle ends, we’re not left with much substance. …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

Revisit: Idiocracy

Just as Mike Judge’s lampooning of cubicle culture in Office Space feels like a relic fro…