October 19, 2000

Being Thom Yorke

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With their latest album, Radiohead continues their journey away from conventional guitar-based rock, towards more abstract experimental music. Gone are the beautiful hooks and riffs of “Fade Out (Street Spirit),” and the visceral energy of “Anyone Can Play Guitar.” Kid A is, instead, a surreal and sedated album, laden with synthesizers, drum machines, and distorted samples. It is a 50-minute opus that delves into the tortured, angst-ridden psyche of the group’s frontman Thom Yorke.

Referring to the first human clone, Kid A depicts a cold, technology-based world of impersonality, seething with Kafka-esque paranoia. The once frustrated Yorke, who screamed in rebellion against the homogenous and superficial world in songs like “Creep,” now seems to have surrendered to his anxiety and alienation.

The album finds Radiohead meandering along the line separating the familiar from the bizarre and abstract. The album opens with “Everything In Its Right Place,” a subdued song composed of a single, looped organ melody layered with unintelligible, distorted samples of Yorke’s voice.

The album further diverges from the conventional with the title track and “The National Anthem.” Accompanied by a drum machine and synthesized bell effects, “Kid A” is an incoherent four minutes of vocoder-distorted lyrics. “The National Anthem” begins with a grinding bass line and intelligible lyrics, but it later collapses into a dissonant sea of atonal jazz trumpets.

Symptomatic of many of the tracks on the album, “Kid A” and “The National Anthem” lack any clear direction. Without a climax or a sense of closure, these tracks often lapse into a depressing monotony of whining and unimpressing electronic effects. This is, perhaps, why Radiohead and Capitol records announced that they would not release any singles or push any specific tracks for airplay.

There is, of course, some semblance of their earlier guitar-based style on the album. After the taxing and somewhat intangible tracks at the beginning of the work, Radiohead stumbles back to their signature style of space rock. “How To Disappear Completely” is the most outstanding track on the album, exemplifying the somber, surreal mood with brilliantly arranged acoustic guitars and a sweeping orchestral background.

Describing an out-of-body dream where he’s floating down the the River Liffey in Dublin, Yorke sings, “that there/ that’s not me /I’m not here/ this isn’t happening.” On “In Limbo,” Yorke goes on to depict his own musical wanderings to guitarist Johnny Greenwood’s syncopated, staccato riffs. “I’m lost at sea/ don’t bother me/ I’ve lost my way,” he explains.

Radiohead also heavily draws from musicians at the forefront of the experimental electronica scene. With its ambient atmospherics, “Treefingers” clearly emulates the musical style of Brian Eno. On “Idioteque,” the band layers Aphex Twin’s characteristic blunt, crashing beats over Yorke’s whining voice. Kid A aptly concludes with the karmic love song, “Motion Picture Soundtrack.” A shimmering harp accompaniment permeates the paranoia and hopelessness set by the previous songs. “I will see you in the next life,” Yorke promises his lover in the end. Complete with a reprise, “Motion Picture Soundtrack” is a beautiful piece that allows the listener to awaken from a coma of disillusionment.

Somewhere between innovative genius and creative arrogance, Kid A is a complex and strange journey into the dark recesses of Thom Yorke’s soul. The album is extremely esoteric and will probably leave a lot of Radiohead fans thinking, “what the hell?”

Although the band displays a great deal of bravery for producing an LP of experimental music, many fans will feel betrayed that Radiohead abandoned the style of rock that made them famous.

But one thing is definite: Kid A has sold over 209,000 copies in the US since it’s release last week, beating out Nelly, Green Day, and Madonna for Number One. For a millionaire on top of the pop world, with legions of fans, I can’t figure out what exactly Thom Yorke is so disillusioned about. Take some Paxil and listen to some Beach Boys CDs man!

Archived article by Kouki Harasaki