It was 20 years ago this week that Radiohead didn’t so much re-arrange the deckchairs on the assumptions of the music industry as ram an iceberg through it with Kid A.
There are plenty of think pieces now, retrospectively gauging its role in remaking the band’s fan base, changing what was “mainstream” in electronic music, and throwing a great big bit of not-so-ok computer into guitar rock. Not to mention almost as many explaining why it was all Kid Meh, late to the Autechre party, and more white boys whining.
But what was it like to face it at the time? In this review from October 2000 we find out. A clue may be in knowing that the headline was The Sound Of One Man Cracking – though eventually it wasn’t just one man. And the cracking was a good thing.
Kid A (Parlophone/EMI)
At the height of his fame in 1977, David Bowie was a physical and emotional disaster, his brain fried by fame, isolation and drugs. He escaped to Berlin (via France) with Brian Eno and made Low, Heroes and Lodger, albums infused with emotional hunger, set in bleak landscapes and eschewing grand musical statements for sparser electronic excursions.
Radiohead's path to this, their fourth album, and its results, mirror Bowie in Berlin, for Kid A is the sound of singer Thom Yorke falling apart.
His lyrics come in fractured grabs with small phrases repeated almost talismanically. These aren't narratives but cries, sometimes sung in high clear tones, other times with a mere smear of voice. "I'm the first in the Irish Sea/Another message I can't read ... nowhere to hide" and "I've lost my way/I've lost my way".
Fear is the leitmotiv; loss of self the result. In How To Disappear Completely, Yorke recalls a show Radiohead played before 38,000 in Dublin where he began to come apart at the seams. "That there/ That's not me ... I float down the Liffey/I'm not here/This isn't happening".
From the opening sounds of electric organ giving way to cut-and-paste robotic voices to the lost chords of the uncredited final song, the musical terrain is as unnerving as the lyrics. How To Disappear Completely begins with an acoustic guitar strum similar to Fake Plastic Trees from The Bends but eases into an eerie floating wash with Yorke in near-operatic voice, the combination unsettling and simultaneously beautiful (like the harp- and strings-buoyed Motion Picture Soundtrack).
The title track takes on Aphex Twin territory with lo-fi ambient bubblings, scratchy sounds dropping in and the voice a muffled extra note, which serves as an entree to The National Anthem. In this song, an insistent throbbing bass is joined by saxophone that begins with assertive stabs, and is later joined by trumpet, before spiralling into a free-form climax.
While Treefinger, the first of two instrumentals, works like Bowie's Warszawa as a night-shift-loneliness circuit breaker, the next two songs (the ironically titled Optimistic, which is the album's only genuine guitar exploration, and the tense drum-loop pulse of In Limbo) are a steadily gripping prelude to the album's highlight, Idioteque.
Here, the stripping away of the layers of Radiohead is complete, leaving us with a skittish, primitive-sounding beatbox and Yorke, first solo-voiced, then double-tracked and finally multi-tracked in increasingly elaborate disturbance. It has the call to dance/slash of pain heard in Joy Division's She's Lost Control and is simply compelling.
Despite the hype, there are songs here, there are plenty of intellectually and emotionally challenging and satisfying moments. For this is one of the most intense and consistently involving albums of recent years. But this is not an album for everyone and for many it will sound like empty words in a desperately cold room.
It is many things but it isn't rock 'n' roll. Take that as you wish.