Twenty years later, Radiohead’s anxiety-laden Kid A remains startlingly relevant
On October 2nd, 2000, Radiohead released their fourth studio album, Kid A. They had a lot to live up to: their previous album, OK Computer, was released three years prior to immense acclaim. Most publications agreed that it was the best rock record of the 90’s; some even claimed it would be remembered as one of the greatest albums of all time. Regardless of the accuracy or magnitude of contemporary acclaim, OK Computer was certainly powerful: it relays a moody, melancholy sense of unease with visceral prescience; I can’t think of many other albums that carry a similar energy.
Ultimately, Radiohead was able to prophetically capture the feelings of social isolation and political anxiety that are relevant to the near-technocracy we live under today. Tracks like “Electioneering” have never felt so real: in my home state of Texas, Governor Greg Abbott is (likely illegally) removing hundreds of drop-off ballot sites, not to mention Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s systematic dismantling of the USPS in anticipation of the upcoming election.
How, then, do you follow-up a rock album that broke the rules of rock? Simple: you don’t just break the rules–that’s not innovative or good enough anymore–you rewrite them completely. One of the reasons that Kid A maintains such a commercial appeal two decades later, despite being decidedly non-commercial in composition, is because of Radiohead’s intentional, careful, and wonderfully pretentious approach. They didn’t just make a rock record with experimental aspects, in fact, they barely made a rock record at all.
On Kid A, Radiohead pulls and stretches and smashes and contorts influences from wide swaths of music before them, avoiding (for the most part) anything too rock-adjacent. Whispers of Brian Eno are present on the ambient cuts (“Kid A,” “Treefingers”), John Coltrane and Joy Division lend a free-wheeling energy to “The National Anthem,” Aphex Twin and Bjork (and Wagner, apparently) rave and thrash on “Idioteque,” and Shostakovich would be jealous of the over-the-top emotional swells on “How to Disappear Completely.”
You get the sense that Radiohead made Kid A specifically to sound like nothing else before it, and although they wear all of their influences on their sleeve, the careful, intentional synthesis of such a staggering variety of music more or less achieves that goal. Kid A‘s longevity isn’t just in the fact that’s it’s a beautiful, emotional, expertly-crafted record, but also in that it’s still a totally unique musical experience 20 years later.
Diehard Kid A fans tend to be total music nerds; the overly artsy-fartsy aspects of the album aren’t to the album’s detriment, rather, they make the music more compelling. A lot of the controversy–especially in 2000–surrounding the album’s quality centered around this idea. There’s a tendency to reduce Kid A naysayers to people who just “don’t get it”, who aren’t smart enough to understand the music. That’s ridiculous: Kid A–compared to similar works like Portishead’s Third–isn’t too inaccessible, it’s just extremely ostentatious. You’re either into that, or you aren’t.
Beyond the album’s composition, thematically, Radiohead was operating in the same pocket as OK Computer, which similarly lends a sense of emotional immediacy to Kid A. It’s impossible to avoid a feeling of abject coldness when holding the record in your hands; the icy, jagged peaks of the cover art loom over you, a reminder that you are very small, and you are very, very alone. Kid A is an avalanche of gut-wrenching, vomit-inducing, anxiety triggers. A few moments of catharsis dot the album, but they’re fleeting. “Morning Bell” carries a sweeping, beautiful chorus, instantly cut by eerie calls to “cut the kids in half.”
Over the past few months especially, Kid A has gained a special, supernatural relevance. The world is hurtling thousands of miles an hour around the sun, a pandemic has killed over a million people worldwide, our country is on fire, and I’m… sitting in my room. Alone. Disconnected from friends, thousands of miles away from family, trying to get a diploma and find a job. Thom Yorke said that the refrain of “How To Disappear Completely” references his mantra to battle tour anxiety: “I’m not here / This isn’t happening.” I find myself repeating that line a lot these days, in a futile attempt to momentarily blip out of existence. Kid A is an anxious album made in an anxious time. Twenty years later, that much, at least, hasn’t changed.