Sitting across his desk from Thom Yorke last fall onstage at the Ed Sullivan Theater, Stephen Colbert posed a question to the Radiohead frontman. “For decades you’ve been writing music that is uneasy and anxious with regards to society, our government, technology, the general direction of the world,” the Late Show host said. “How does it feel to be right?”
Looking relaxed but bashful, Yorke smirked and meekly replied, “I guess I wasn’t thinking about the future. I was looking at what was happening at the time. It just seemed to get more obvious. I think it’s more overt now.”
He and Colbert could have been thinking of any number of releases. Yorke was freaking out about predatory international lending and the creeping surveillance state as early as 1997’s OK Computer. By 2003’s Hail To The Thief he was taking an American president to task for an endless torrent of misinformation. Yorke’s solo albums have coursed with the same outrage and alarm, whether spotlighting an alleged murderous government conspiracy on 2006’s “Harrowdown Hill” or rebuking climate change deniers on 2014’s “There Is No Ice (For My Drink).” His body of work resonates loudly into our current dystopia — perhaps loudest of all on Kid A, the landmark album Radiohead released 20 years ago today.
Kid A is a classic for many reasons, but lately I’ve been struck by its prescience. The album reflected Yorke’s headspace at the turn of the millennium, distraught over the state of the world and crippled by the pressures of newfound superstardom. For me, a teenager in suburban Ohio during the lull before 9/11, it sounded like an alternate reality. Not anymore. In the skronking, discordant chaos of “The National Anthem” I hear the disorienting noise of life online under rising nationalism and authoritarianism, an endless barrage of push notifications and social media posts about a world that only seems to get darker and scarier. Public attitudes about this planet’s declining health are only just now catching up to the frantic urgency of “Idioteque” and the bleak cynicism of “Optimistic.” Who among us has not at some point in recent years tried to assert some kind of control by putting “everything in its right place” or felt compelled to curl up in a ball and declare, “I’m not here, this isn’t happening”?
I was, in fact, there when Kid A dropped and can attest that it was extremely happening. OK Computer had made Radiohead a huge deal — their dour yet dynamic music hailed by critics as the future of rock, their inspired and disturbing videos all over MTV, their concert guest lists overflowing with celebs. Now they were following up their grandly depressive opus with something markedly different: an album that de-prioritized guitars, often reduced Yorke’s powerhouse falsetto to a garbled mumble, and largely jettisoned rock music in favor of bleary soundscapes informed by electronica, jazz, and the modern classical avant-garde. Just when “Creep” fans had wrapped their heads around the gnarled prog of “Paranoid Android,” they were forced to grapple with “Idioteque,” a glitchy two-chord electronic pop song that often sent Yorke spiraling into fits of preposterous dancing. Kid A debuted at #1 in the UK and US and placed highly on many year-end lists, but it also sparked endless heated debate about Radiohead’s artistic direction. The album had an intense gravity within the public sphere; if you were paying attention to the music press or engaging in the vibrant online community surrounding this band, they seemed like the center of the universe.
It’s hard to overstate how thrilling all this was for a high school junior who’d spent the prior six months falling madly in love with Radiohead, first devouring OK Computer and then The Bends, Pablo Honey, and whatever B-sides and rarities I could find on Napster. Kid A could not have arrived at a better time for me — a moment when I was eager to define myself by my favorite bands and perhaps even more eager to age out of nu-metal and become a pretentious little fuck.
Convinced I had discovered the greatest band in the world — rightfully convinced, I’d argue, because I remain an unapologetic stan to this day — I threw myself fully into Kid A‘s pioneering internet-focused rollout: scouring message boards and fan sites for fresh tidbits about the album, scanning radio and MTV hoping to catch “Optimistic” or one of Radiohead’s promotional “blips,” wringing my hands over whether my dial-up connection could handle the advance stream of the album on the band’s website. (It could not.) According to the customs of the times, a friend and I lined up outside our local record store to buy the album at midnight and spent hours afterward dissecting it on AOL Instant Messenger. The next day, I foisted the music upon my classmates whenever the opportunity arose, including at the school newspaper where I soon published my fawning review. I was surely insufferable.
This excitement carried on for quite some time, peaking with Radiohead’s Saturday Night Live performance midway through October. I vividly remember returning home from my high school Homecoming dance in the post-midnight hours, cuing up my VCR, and being swept into a giddy endorphin rush. Colin Greenwood’s bass was jarring and incessant. His brother Jonny, once a visionary guitar hero, culled eerie sounds from a keyboard-theremin hybrid called an Ondes Martenot and later wandered around with a box built to pick up radio signals. A full brass section rained down such cacophony that it was easy for Phil Selway’s drumbeat and Ed O’Brien’s guitar drones to blur into a torrent of noise. In the center of it all was Yorke, wearing a buzz cut and the most severe expression imaginable, raving and flailing like a deranged orchestra conductor who doubles as the town crier.
This is what Radiohead were serving up at the time. It confused and angered a lot of people. By now Kid A might as well be Sgt. Pepper’s or Nevermind, a game-changing masterpiece that can start to feel more like a cultural artifact than a stirring collection of music. It has been so thoroughly canonized that it’s easy to forget just how polarizing the album was at the time. There were worshipful reviews, including the notoriously overwritten perfect 10 that helped put Pitchfork on the map. But some critics slagged off Kid A as turgid and self-indulgent, a betrayal of Radiohead’s strengths that leaned into their worst miserablist impulses. Others disputed that the band’s new sound was really all that innovative, dismissing it as a retread of stated influences like Can, Björk, Aphex Twin, and Charles Mingus. (Yorke might agree to a point: “What we’re doing isn’t that radical,” he told Mojo in 2001, exhausted with the public’s dramatic response to Kid A.)
Even Yorke’s bandmates and producer Nigel Godrich were skeptical of the new direction at first, but in the aftermath of OK Computer, he was determined to outrun his own disgust. Disillusioned with rock and the culture around it, traumatized by the media frenzy over his band, and annoyed by all the soft-batch Radiohead copycats springing up, Yorke immersed himself in the Warp Records catalog and began fiddling with instruments he barely knew how to play. He couldn’t bring himself to finish a song on guitar but was frankly having trouble finishing anything else either. Despite everyone’s apprehension, Radiohead spent more than a year fumbling their way into a new creative process in various studios across Europe and the UK, a frustrating and awkward endeavor that led them to the brink of a breakup. At least some of the oppressive darkness haunting the album stems from the band’s own despair about their future together.
Eventually, they figured it out. In doing so, not only did they rewrite their own nascent mythology, they charted a course for critically acclaimed music in the 21st century. My friend and colleague Steven Hyden published a whole book this week about “the many ways in which Kid A shaped and foreshadowed our world,” and although I’ve been holding out on reading it until I finish writing this, it’s easy to see where he’s coming from. Beyond the prophetic pre-9/11 dread and the trailblazing online promo tactics, Kid A prefigured a future in which rock bands would largely become passé and most of the music hailed as cutting-edge would be a product of studio wizardry, often electronic in nature. Regardless of how groundbreaking the music on Kid A was or wasn’t, it cast a long shadow.
As James Murphy would surely point out, it’s not like rockers had never traded in their guitars before, but Kid A became a tipping point and a lodestar. Artists began constantly citing it as an influence — even whitebread superstars like Justin Timberlake and John Mayer, who famously covered the title track. When a pop phenom like Frank Ocean delivers a challenging experimental release like Blonde, Kid A becomes a natural comparison point. Ditto any combination of frigid digital beats and hearty emotional catharsis a la James Blake or latter-day Bon Iver. Even some of the classic rockers of the modern indie sphere, like the War On Drugs and Vampire Weekend, are auteurist studio projects at their core.
Ironically, Radiohead’s bootleg-friendly live show and staunch dedication to full-band collaboration now seem downright traditional compared to many of the acts that sprung up in Kid A‘s wake — and after all the huffing and puffing about the album’s supposedly difficult material, these songs translated just fine to the world’s arenas and amphitheaters. The glory of Kid A, though, is that within Radiohead’s own catalog this material really was revolutionary. Although each of their albums up to this point was a quantum leap, this was the sound of a band ripping apart their sound and rebuilding it into new shapes, venturing into the wilderness and learned as they went. O’Brien figured out how to make his guitar fit into this strange new context. Jonny Greenwood discovered his knack for cinematic splendor. Through strenuous effort, they all figured out how to cooperate while using radically different building blocks than they were accustomed to. That sense of frustration and breathless discovery is what sets apart the album from what followed. Everything after Kid A was a variation on the template they established here, but to get to that point Radiohead had to risk abject failure at the height of their fame.
To this day some people maintain that the result of that effort was nothing special — a valid perspective, but also one I’ve never related to. This album still flips my shit. It’s a movie I can’t look away from even though I’ve long since memorized every scene. From the first synthesizer arpeggio on “Everything In Its Right Place” to the last celestial twinkle of the “Motion Picture Soundtrack” epilogue, I find myself mesmerized time and again. Some of that has to do with sequencing and self-editing. They did well to limit Kid A to 10 tracks and release the remainder as 2001’s Amnesiac rather than attempt a double album; this one locks into a vibe for 47 minutes and never lets up. I honestly love it more now than I did when I was 17.
Even the tracks that seemed like connective tissue at first — the willfully unsettling pied-piper lullaby “Kid A,” the ambient instrumental “Treefingers,” the trippy and disorienting fever dream “In Limbo,” the deceptively violent comedown “Morning Bell” — have elicited eurekas at some these past two decades and entered into hallowed sentimental territory. And the ones that gobsmacked me from the gate? Good lord. The paranoid clamor of “The National Anthem” is still guaranteed to whisk me into anxious euphoria, particularly when Yorke announces, “Everyone has got the fear/ It’s holdin’ on,” and the blaring horns start to creep into the mix. The album’s one true guitar banger, “Optimistic,” is probably the most underrated song in Radiohead’s discography, a primitive stomper about futility that resolves into one last graceful pre-extinction surge. Before descending into a shrill symphonic void on the ballad “How To Disappear,” Yorke declares, “This isn’t happening,” only to conclude amidst the visceral computerized wasteland of “Idioteque” that, regrettably, “This is really happening.” And in both cases my response continues to be: YES!!!!!
Cultural impact aside, what has caused Kid A to endure for me personally is the sheer musical and emotional power of these songs. None of Radiohead’s experiments would have clicked if these guys weren’t deep in the throes of personal upheaval and desperately in search of a way to communicate that struggle without descending into cliché. It’s true that Kid A is a stubbornly abstract document, a case of a band with a gift for large-scale catharsis opting against accessibility in favor of dreary disarray. But that was kind of the point, wasn’t it? In order to get across what he was thinking and feeling, Yorke had to develop a musical language that reflected back his own distress. It’s the kind of angst you’re supposed to age out of, and sure enough, Yorke’s casual posture on Colbert last year was a far cry from the nervous wreck stalking the SNL stage two decades ago. Have you seen the man’s new wedding photos? He seems to have found a modicum of happiness and peace while remaining engaged with the world’s ills. And yet his divisive sonic freakout is aging even better than he is. The farther we get from Kid A, the more sense it starts to make.