It always gets interesting when an established act decides they need to dramatically alter their sound and musical direction. We have seen it with almost all of the recurring success stories we have addressed in this blog, and clearly Radiohead isn’t any different in this manner. Not only does it create potential confusion and dissension within the fanbase, it can even strain the relationships and functionality of a working team. I believe that both of those dynamics are in play on “Kid A”, their fourth album, even as it ultimately garnered extremely high praise from most critics and of course, their biggest champions at Rolling Stone, who have rated this album as #20 on their Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list. I personally would never rate it on the same level, as much of this album is a bit challenging for me to consume, but I know music is subjective, and that there are many out there who look at it differently than I do.
For this record, Thom Yorke, who was continuing to combat mental health and wellness, took the lead role in shaping and defining the path for this record. He was fairly consumed by electronic music at this point, and he certainly endeavored to reflect that influence on this album. The album is nearly devoid of guitars, with minimal traditional percussion as well, as synthesizers, organs, strings and horns, among other instruments, filled in the sound. Much of the band was confused by this altered path, although they all stayed on board to successfully complete the record. Perhaps the best comparative I easily think of is the direction Brian Wilson took the Beach Boys with “Pet Sounds” and “Smile”.
The music is very abstract, perhaps even cosmic, and perhaps best consumed in an altered state. “Everything in its Right Place” and the title track are good openers, and the sound is fairly consistent across the record. “The National Anthem” is a very unique sound, and the words chaos and cacophony best capture the assault of horns and strings in the second half of the song. It is hard to listen to, and hard not to listen to, at the same time.
An instrumental track like “Treefingers” once again takes me back to Orlando’s Mall of Millenia, staring in place at the colorful and evolving colored panels in the center of the mall. (If you know, you know…). “Optimistic” is a welcome respite of actual guitar within this monochromic landscape, and it is easily my favorite track with its warming collection of chords. My next favorite track might be “Morning Bell”, particularly the opening segments of the song, but like many tracks, it tends to lose me along the way. Two albums in, and I still don’t fully understand the fascination and hype with Radiohead. It is highly complex and intellectual music, and maybe it is just too sophisticated and abstract for my relatively simple mind. I did enjoy the overall tone of the haunting synths and strings, and the mid-album insertion of “Optimistic” is a highlight, but this one won’t be cracking any personal Top 20 list as I see it. It feels a little bit like I’m looking for chicken tenders and being served some exotic meal that costs $75 and has 4 bites on the plate. There is a target audience for this sound, but I don’t think I am included.