Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Review: Radiohead - Kid A (Deluxe Edition)

I was 19 years old when Kid A came out.  I hadn't made it past my freshman year of college (at that point at least), and didn't return to school in favor of taking some random temp job in data entry in the financial district in Manhattan.  I still remember heading over to the mall at South Street Seaport Mall the day it was released on CD to buy it on lunch.  I wasn't a diehard Radiohead fan at this point, I really, really liked The Bends a lot and certainly loved OK Computer as much as the next alternative junkie, but I can't say that I ever imagined myself caring about them as much as I do now at this point in my life.

Getting back to work, I popped the CD into my computer, plugged my headphones in, and listened away as I plugged away at tedious computer work.  I'm fairly certain I skipped over a few tracks after hearing the first few seconds, then got to The National Anthem, listened, loved it, and skipped ahead again straight to Optimistic.

Then I distinctly remember something weird happening; Idioteque came on after Optimistic, and I grabbed the CD case again, and just stared at it through the entire song.  WTF was I listening to?  No fucking way was this Radiohead.  But it was.  It was Radiohead, and this was how they were going to be proceeding with music from this point on.  

And that was that.  My life hasn't been the same since, at least from a musical standpoint.  Over the past 9 years, I've just flat-out submitted myself to this album.  It's the band's finest work and the best album of the decade.  If I had to make a list of the greatest rock albums ever, I'd have it in my top 5.  So many people would disagree and too many are so quick to dismiss it as a failed electronic attempt, but you really can't argue with how the band's direction post-Kid A has entrenched their position as the one and only alternative supergroup who still maintains credibility amongst so many pretentious indie-heads and the mainstream at the same time.

But that's what's great about Kid A.  It means something different to everyone else.  Literally, everyone. Even friends of mine with great musical tastes, who've never come around on it, can point to it and explain why Kid A makes them appreciate OK Computer that much more.  Chuck Klosterman dedicated an entire fucking chapter of a book towards analyzing its similarities to 9/11.

To me though, Kid A is simply an album about the difficulties of making an album.  Even more so, making an album after making an album like OK Computer.  You can hear it in Thom Yorke's indiscernible voice on the second (album-titled) track: "I slipped away/I slipped away on a little white lie...We've got heads on sticks/You've got ventriloquists." The fact that Yorke makes his voice so hard to make out throughout this giant middle finger to fans expecting the same or record companies demanding OK part deux is something I've come to appreciate so much more over the years.  The hidden track at the end conveys the same message.  It's almost like Yorke and the boys are saying to everyone: "Here's a hidden track, it sounds nothing like music, fuck you."  I just love that.

Quoting Optimistic to reinforce this opinion is almost too easy.  The entire chorus is a message from Yorke's girlfriend as a source of encouragement towards his struggles in getting the damn album done ("You can try the best you can,/you can try the best you can/the best you can is always good enough).  It's also one of Phil Selway's finest moments of a drummer as well, with the backbeat remaining constant and soft in the background, giving Greenwood and Ed O'Brien room to expand with their sounds, until he just totally takes over with a brilliant sequence of drum-rolls to take the song into that beautifully crazed jazz ending.

The rest of the album takes us in the same direction, from the ambience of Treefingers to the queazy,  roller-coaster-like nausea that In Limbo causes anyone who's listening with a good pair of  headphones.  Peaking with Idioteque, a song that Pitchfork just named a top 10 track for the decade and rightfully so.  It's Kid A's highlight, and, as a single track, is Radiohead's magnum opus.  It takes us right into Morning Bell, where Yorke sings: "The lights are on but nobody's home/Nobody wants to be a slave/Walking, walking, walking, walking."  By extolling how boxed in the band feels by what The Bends and OK Computer made them throughout the 90's, they're in fact breaking free from those albums.

And that's what's so fucking beautiful about the entire record.  As people, we're taught that true vindication of self only comes through breaking through your own personal barriers.  Kid A teaches us that the same stigma holds true for bands, and music as a whole.  Alternative music doesn't have to be boxed in by the instrumental limitations of grunge.  It can expand and command an entire spectrum of genres and experimentation.  

The live bonus tracks here come through as you'd expect.  A great version of True Love Waits (one of the group's most underrated songs lyrically), BBC recordings, several great tracks from a session at Canal+ Studios in Paris, and for the Idioteque nuts, there's a version from that studio and also a BBC version.  As far as I'm concerned, the more versions of Idioteque I get to hear, the better.  All in all, you get 13 new live versions of tracks we've already grown to love.  For fans, these tracks are a must hear.  There's obviously no need to buy the entire album again, it hasn't been remastered or anything, and the bonus tracks can be individually purchased anyways.  Though I suspect completists will probably do so anyways. 

In the end, plenty of people will voice their displeasure towards this album as long as rock music lives on.  And that's cool, because unlike people who try to hate Nevermind nowadays, Kid A is at least understandable to hate.  It's easy to dislike music that takes this much effort to listen to.  It's why you don't hear Animal Collective playing at your local bar, or your average house party blasting Portishead.  Because albums like this put you in a bottle, shake you up for for 50 minutes, and when they pour you back out, you're never the same again; simply put, music like that isn't always easy for everyone to entrench themselves in.  

Since I bought this album that day in Manhattan, I've gone back to school, gotten a bachelors degree from Rutgers, moved several times, gone through several girlfriends, moved to Baltimore, gotten a Masters degree, and I'm currently applying for PhD programs.  Go figure.  And I still have no idea where my life is headed.  In the end, Kid A has enough proponents to help its greatness live on in the hearts and minds in those of us who've truly come to love this album for what it is; a reflection of ourselves as the world keeps changing, for ourselves and for each other, and how nobody really knows just how to handle it.

Grade: A+

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