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Thom Yorke is Not an Alien: Deconstructing the Radiohead Conundrum

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I bought Radiohead’s Kid A in the fall of 2000, when I was an awkward, pimply-faced, nerdy high school senior. I’d had my nose in the music periodicals for a couple of weeks, reading the glowing reviews of it; erudite rock critics offering statements like, “Thom Yorke is NOT OF THIS PLANET!!” and, “With Kid A, Radiohead have managed to create a tear in the cosmos, allowing the soundtrack to another galaxy to slip through space and into the mixing booth at Abbey Road Studios,” and, Kid A was made by REAL LIVE HUMAN BEINGS! THERE IS HOPE FOR US AS A SPECIES YET!!”

Mind you, these were professional publications; I understand that, barring the absence of plenitudes of remarks like “LOL!” and “WTF?”, they read like an AOL Instant Messenger dialogue between two eighth grade girls, but that’s how excited this record got people. Something was happening here, but we didn’t know what it was; it was all we could do to sit back and take it all in.

Of course, it’s tough to take hyperbole for what it’s worth when you’re an awkward, pimply-faced, nerdy high school senior. Everything in the world seems somewhat hyperbolized, particularly when you’re a musically enthusiastic yet horribly disgruntled patron of the arts in the market for something new, challenging, something downright weird, the type of praise that was being heaped upon Kid A was designed to inspire surreal amounts of gusto. And it was easy hype to build.

I ain’t gonna mince words; OK Computer changed my life just three years prior, when I was an even more awkward, more pimply-faced, nerdier high school freshman. The record took me three years to unravel; I recall staying up until three o’clock in the morning in my grandmother’s basement, laying on top of the pool table and listening to “No Surprises” on headphones, letting its music-box guitar riff carry me away to a place that no music before ever had. I’d play “Karma Police” every morning before school, not really knowing what Thom Yorke was getting at when he sang, “This is what you get when you mess with us,” but still knowing that I identified with it, that it was somehow relevant to this day-to-day escapade known as high school that was both defining and ruining my life. I’d play “Let Down” whenever I wanted to feel like depressed was the thing to be, to think that it would be worth it to suffer the most unbearable disappointment in the world to be able to write a song that authentic, that genuine. And sometimes I’d play “Electioneering” and just jump around my room and throw things. A new Radiohead album was long overdue; sometimes a guy needs to have his life changed every once in a while just to keep the vibe fresh (you gotta have a fresh vibe; there’s nothing quite so unappealing as an unfresh vibe), and I had been saving up my petty weekly allowance money in preparation.

For whatever ridiculous reason, my friend Mark and I had decided to indulge in a little road trip to the Sandberg Mall in Galesburg, Illinois. It’s amazing the things you’ll use as an excuse to leave the house when you’re in high school. The Galesburg mall was hardly half the size of the mall we have here in Peoria, and a Villa Pizza or two notwithstanding, there was nothing there that couldn’t be found here. But hell’s bells, a road trip’s a road trip, innit? After devouring a plethora of dreadful food court gastronomy, I was able to drag Mark and his girlfriend to Sam Goody where I was finally able to acquire a copy of Kid A, an absolute steal for $18.99. On sale.

The cover art was glorious. Everything about it looked, smelled, and felt like the future — everything from the Typeface of Tomorrow font to the translucent foldout paper in the book to the second booklet of random lyrical blurbs located under the CD tray, from the pictures of interplanetary mountains on the cover to the off-the-wall Thom Yorke sketches in Booklet #2, from the album title to the song titles. I cradled it in my arms, professed my love to it, swore that no matter what I’d never let anything happen to it as long as we both lived. I could hardly wait to get it home, out of that uncomfortable jewel case and into a nice warm CD player.

Mark’s girlfriend made us listen to Lenny Kravitz’s Greatest Hits on the way home. I liked Lenny Kravitz in the same way that I liked eating plain white bread; I could dig it as an alternative to nothing, but when brilliance was on the horizon, it just wouldn’t do. “Are You Gonna Go My Way?” never sounded worse. I rocked back and forth, imagining what the record was going to sound like. Critics compared it to Pink Floyd, but critics compared anything remotely experimental to Pink Floyd. My friend Joe Bennett had received an advance (read: pirate) copy from a friend of his, and he had informed me that only one song — “How to Disappear Completely” — had a recognizable guitar part. This intrigued me as I attempted to fathom what Radiohead had going for them in lieu of guitars. Sure, there were electronics, but those only went so far, didn’t they? Bennett also informed me that Kid A was their most depressing one yet, and to that I could only offer a hearty “hell, yes.” In music, depression = keepin’ it real. Or at least would be the case until Dashboard Confessional came along, but that’s another story for another day. I made myself enjoy Lenny’s reading of “American Woman,” an abysmal song to begin with, and anxiously awaited going home and getting dropped off early.

My first thought upon listening to Kid A was that it was nowhere as cool as its cover art. Bennett was wrong about “How to Disappear Completely” being the only song with a guitar part, but it did sit next to “Idioteque” as one of only two songs on the album that I liked. Outer space was definitely the theme, but it wasn’t outer space in that grandiose, cosmic sort of way; it was outer space in that B-movie, Space Invaders sort of way. Thom Yorke didn’t sound like an alien; he sounded like a human being with a studio full of keyboards he didn’t know how to use. I had to scratch my head at the apparent absence of songs. OK Computer had been so successful in that it was able to merge revolutionary songwriting with sonic experimentation, and Kid A seemed at first to entirely forgo the former, and something about it seemed artistically, almost morally, contemptible. I mean, come on, a track that consists entirely of three minutes of white noise? Surely, Thom Yorke and Lou Reed would be doing similar time in purgatory for crimes against amplifier feedback.

But art has its ways, I suppose, and for whatever reason, I kept coming back to Kid A, one day after the next, never really understanding it any better but at least becoming familiar enough with it to know what I wasn’t liking about it. One thing I found I wasn’t liking about it was its apparent lack of commitment to anything. My friend Adam put it best, saying, “I heard live MP3s of them playing ‘Everything in Its Right Place’ before the album came out, and I thought it was just them screwing around onstage.” Yet here “Everything in Its Right Place” was again, the opening track on the album. And then there was the title track, which sounded like a Casio beat with vocals by one of those archaic PC programs where you type in a sentence and the computer reads it back to you. Sheer novelty, something that might be of interest on a B-side or something, but certainly not as one of ten tracks on your first album in three years.

I shelved Kid A for a while and moved onto other things. I started getting really excited about Bob Dylan, skipping work the day after Christmas to stay home and listen to Blood on the Tracks, exchanging words with my church history teacher who failed to acknowledge “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest” as a legitimate statement on theology. I started writing songs of my own, sitting up all hours of the night with Neil Young’s Silver and Gold and studying the art of being wise, musical, and in love (I was at least one of these things, the other two were either feigned or entirely relative), and allowing these obsessions to feed an illusion that the arts were some sort of secret gateway to the ultimate truths of the world.

I found myself raising my standards. I went to Co-Op Records and sold a bunch of albums that I had from grade school and early high school that I couldn’t relate to anymore: Marilyn Manson, Nine Inch Nails, early thrash Metallica, Kid Rock, Limp Bizkit, countless one-hit wonders from the late 1990s that no one would remember if I mentioned them, and rightfully so. The idea of intellect replacing angst was an appealing one; the aforementioned bands spent several months being replaced with more Dylan records, the Beatles albums I didn’t have yet, relatively obscure Pink Floyd discs like Meddle and The Final Cut that hadn’t been ruined by FM radio in the same way Wish You Were Here had been, and the occasional Grateful Dead bootleg my stoner friends would throw at me (“check out this version of ‘Dark Star’ dude, it’s THIRTY-SIX MINUTES LONG, and Jerry fuckin’ RIPS. IT. UP!!!”). I became an anal analyst of lyrics, studying meter, rhyme placement, phonetics, and the effectiveness of particular words versus that of other words; learning more about poetry from Bob Dylan and Robert Hunter than I did from all my high school English teachers combined (which worked fine, I got along a lot better with those guys anyway).

I suppose you could call it a creative renaissance of sorts, though maybe it was one that was inevitably bound to happen to a musically driven individual upon the maturation of his tastes. Nonetheless, there was a period of several months in which my tastes, and likewise my ability to understand the goals of artists and the reason behind songs rather than simply the songs themselves, grew dramatically, and perhaps it’s not without expectation that when I picked up Kid A later that spring, it made a considerable amount more sense than it did eight months prior. I still wasn’t sold on it being a great album by any means, certainly not the Earth-meets-Heavens symphony that Rolling Stone and Spin had proclaimed it was, but subtleties began to work their way to the forefront, and I found that Kid A‘s strength lies in its subtleties.

Where “Motion Picture Soundtrack” once sounded droning, it now sounded beautiful and poignant; when Yorke sang, “I think you’re crazy/Maybe,” it sounded like Version 2.0 of the guy who several years back was singing, “This is what you get if you mess with us.” There was an obvious leap in maturity from OK Computer to Kid A, one completely invisible to someone who may not be looking for it. I found its best songs to be pointlessly abstract, but with beautifully simple choruses that somehow kept the abstractions grounded; a chorus like “I’m not here/This isn’t happening,” was able to perfectly make sense of a phrase like, “I walk through walls/I float down the Liffey.” I mean, heck, what can’t you do once you’ve disappeared completely, right?

I found myself wondering why “Optimistic” wasn’t a song I loved from the get-go. It’s the most accessible song on the record by a mile, following the same pattern of running a line like “Big fish eat the little ones” into the ground with a chorus like, “You try the best you can/The best you can is good enough.” Everybody should love this song, right? Like, how often does someone not named Raffi write a line like “Big fish eat the little ones?” I was able to make sense of these things, pick out that instead of being a stuck-up horse’s arse like he appeared to be in magazines and interviews, maybe Thom Yorke was just a good old bloke with a creative streak and a sense of humor to match. I still thought some of the songs just plain sucked, but I respected them, and was perfectly willing to concede that maybe the world was just hearing something that I wasn’t.

Amnesiac came out late in the summer of 2001. I’d thrown all expectations out the window. I wasn’t expecting another OK Computer, but despite my recent coming around, I didn’t really want another Kid A either. It’s one thing to understand artistic inclinations, but it’s another thing entirely to be constantly up to the challenge; I’d learned to appreciate Kid A for what it was, but I still didn’t like it as well as what they were doing when they were a guitar-driven band. When all was said and done, OK Computer was simply a better batch of songs on all counts, and despite its successor’s attempt at musically equivocating 2001: A Space Odyssey, it certainly couldn’t be accused of being without merit in terms of being aurally stimulating. I simply put my hopes aside and bought the record.

Two things about Amnesiac right off the bat: first, one listen to Amnesiac, and Kid A makes a truckload more sense. The songs were recorded during the same sessions, and when you hear the leftovers (a term which I use for lack of a better word — the songs on Amnesiac are not Kid A’s throwaways, but rather songs that would have had about as much place on that album as a penguin would have in the Sahara), the sequencing on Kid A becomes a lot more clear cut, the mission behind the record as a whole a good deal more obvious. Amnesiac has gotta be one of the most disjointed, incongruent records ever released; it’s a total mess of beats, riffs, feedback, and an occasional hook if you listen close enough, but it’s loose assembly allows it to breathe a lot more. Kid A is very claustrophobic music. It’s so smothered in wall-of-sound ambience that there isn’t any room for any one thing to do anything on its own, which works brilliantly well when the song is suited to it, but to take in the entire thing is like pouring an entire bottle of Mrs. Butterworth’s on one Eggo waffle.

The second thing about Amnesiac is that I found it impossible to distinguish between the songs I didn’t like and the songs I just plain didn’t get. I was pretty sure “Morning Bell” was just a piece of crap, but here they were putting versions of it on both Kid A and Amnesiac, so maybe there was something to it that I wasn’t picking up on. (Time hasn’t been kind to that one; “Morning Bell” is among the worst songs on both records.) Some of the songs didn’t float my boat, as they say, but I didn’t really feel qualified to comment on songs like “Like Spinning Plates” or “Hunting Bears” because I’d never really heard anything like them before. “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” sounded like something they’d play in a movie during a scene where a girl had been slipped roofies and dragged comatose back to some frat boy’s Lounge O’Lovin’. But visuals aside, I kinda liked it.

While the artistic side of me was more than willing to give Thom and the boys the benefit of the doubt, the side of me that wanted a pleasant album to listen to hated Amnesiac even more than it hated Kid A. Unlike Kid A, which was one gigantic musical mystery, Amnesiac was eleven smaller musical mysteries, eleven obnoxious math problems to be solved, eleven tedious puzzles to be deciphered before understanding was to be reached. I adopted the philosophy that okay, Kid A was pretty good, but Amnesiac was a bunch of crap. As far as I was concerned, the melodies were too nondescript and the beats were the soundtrack to a crappy barn rave that no one attended. I liked “Knives Out,” and thought “I’m a reasonable man/Get off my case,” was a nice catchy chorus line, but beyond that I had no use for this record. If I was going to have a rave, people were going to come and that was that.

Later in 2001, I discovered the universe of independent music, and that’s exactly what it was — a universe. I got hip to the notion that there were a bollocks-load of things happening in the musical world that couldn’t be read about in Spin magazine, couldn’t be heard on regular FM radio, and that most of your disconnected, more unhip friends couldn’t tell you about. Through the recommendations of several friends, I started acquiring copies of albums by the likes of The Dismemberment Plan, Mogwai, Sunny Day Real Estate, early Death Cab for Cutie, Songs: Ohia, and began to find the archival music that gave way to it, groups like Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Roxy Music, and all those punk bands from the late 1970s that I never really liked but still played on occasion because I thought it gave me cred to do so.

I’m a big believer in the idea that the snob factor plays at least a minor role in the lives of fans of most music that could be considered bizarre or left-field. I wouldn’t have become a fan of Mogwai or Tortoise if I hadn’t at least once put aside personal musical inclinations simply for the fact that I was listening to something new and different, if I hadn’t traded my comfort zone for the desire to expand my horizons. That’s a dodgy statement because it suggests that people force themselves to like things that aren’t worth liking, but that’s not the nature of the comment at all. What it does mean is simply that sometimes you have to just sit back and let yourself experience something for a while before you can pretend to understand it, and in a great many cases, the journey begins with the basic knowledge that at one point you will understand it. Radiohead had proven to be a band whose questions were far more interesting than their answers, a band for whom you constantly had to put aside your comfort zone and prepare yourself for mass confusion, challenge, and adventure.

Through rounding out my obsession with independent music, I learned, much to my surprise, that despite being a corporate rock act made famous by Capitol Records and MTV Buzz Clips in 1995, Radiohead were among the most respected of all bands in nearly any indie music circle, and that was an interesting idea. I went back and listened to all their records. OK Computer sounded brilliant as usual, a perfect album designed to stand alongside London Calling and Abbey Road as not only great rock albums, but among the greatest albums of all time. “The Bends” sounded a little dated, but there’s no denying the serenity of songs like “Fake Plastic Trees” and “Street Spirit,” and even though the multi-guitar attack is *so* 1995, anyone who can’t rock out to “The Bends” or “My Iron Lung” has no place as a guest at any of my parties, ever. Kid A proved pretty remarkable, despite several songs that I was convinced would never be good, no matter how hard I tried to like them.

Amnesiac still sounded dreadful, like Kid A after someone took a sledgehammer to it. I couldn’t stand listening to it, and I couldn’t stand that I couldn’t stand listening to it, so I kept listening to it, trying to pinpoint not what I hated about it, but what other people seemed to like so much about it. Kid A was easy enough in retrospect; they’d managed to get away with slacking off on their songwriting, but those who didn’t concern themselves with such things had an amazing sonic landscape to gaze upon, and it’s foolish to assume that doesn’t count for something, especially when the songwriting quip is only half-true (“Idioteque” and “How to Disappear Completely” are about as good as songs get, regardless), but Amnesiac seemingly (seemingly, now) had nothing; little in the way of songs, not much in terms of sonic ambition, and certainly no cohesiveness. It was like Radiohead decided to stop being Radiohead and make a dopey sound collage for an introductory film class instead.

The question was this: if I loathe this music so much, why am I so much more fascinated with this band in a state of what I consider to be disrepair than I was when I was perfectly content to sit back and just enjoy the hell out of their music? It’s the classic Miles Davis conundrum, the classic Dylan quagmire: Miles quits bebopping and starts playing funk-rock, Dylan cans his folkie schtick and goes electric, and people claim to hate it yet they can’t shut the hell up about it, continuing to look for things in it and picking it apart as though they’re going to find something there. What critics of all three — Miles, Dylan, Radiohead — fail to acknowledge, is that it’s the questions that define this stuff in the first place. I guess it would be insulting to almost anyone’s intelligence to venture some kind of dissertation about how great art never really reveals itself to you, how it’s really all about the search for answers to begin with, and ultimately it doesn’t end up showing you anything about the work itself but ends up completely schooling you on a myriad of other things completely unrelated. And that was Radiohead in a nutshell. The journey, not the destination.

Let the historical record show that Kid A and Amnesiac are both records I now like very much. 2003’s Hail to the Thief was support for their cause; immediately hailed as a return to form (“RADIOHEAD ARE A BAND AGAIN!!! PRAISE THE SKIES!!”), it was an album that nary left my CD player all summer, but has hardly returned since (except to bounce around to “A Wolf at the Door,” their finest recorded hour thus far, as far as this nitpicker is concerned). Without mystery, there was but pleasantry, and for whatever reason, there was disappointment at this, disappointment at the lack of the challenge, disappointment at the absence of inner conflict created by music that begs to be understood but refuses to be unraveled. Or maybe it’s just that Radiohead finally coming full circle put Kid A and Amnesiac in their respective places, and like the songs that comprise them, they now function better in the scope of the whole. Whatever it is, the journey was grand, and as always, the destination seems far less remarkable.

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About Rockbeatstone

  • Kevin Davis

    Hi,
    I’m the author of this article, and just (very) randomly stumbled across this link. Just wanted to say thanks for posting.

    Kevin

  • http://- Carl

    Great article, well written. I agree with several points, but there are a few that had me a little confused at times. Either way, I think Radiohead is amazing, and OK Computer is by far their greatest work.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Interesting article.

    And one I have a lot of thoughts on. You really need to see Radiohead live for one thing. They bring a lot of warmth to the KId A and Amnesiac songs on a concert stage that the studio albums lack somewhat.

    I have a stream of their live stuff (including a lot of the brand new unreleased songs performed in Europe just a few weeks ago) up on my blog if you’d like to check it out. Just click the URL under my name on this comment. You’ll find the stream at the bottom of the page.

    Anyway, as I said, I have a lot of thoughts on your article. But they are far too numerous to go over here. So what I think I am going to do instead is submit an article to Blogcritics that will be somewhat of a response to your article.

    Look for “A Second Opinion on Radiohead from Another Fan” (or something along those lines) to get posted here within the next day or so (assuming the Editors like the story and all).

    You make some valid points. I’m just going to offer another perspective, thats all. Hopefully the link will draw interest in both articles.

    In the meantime though, do check out the stream on my blog…especially if you’ve never seen Radiohead live.

    But I like I said, Interesting (and well written) article.

    -Glen

  • http://beefpiegod.blogspot.com Zero

    Some good points there. I really wouldn’t mind Kid A and Amnesiac though; they are still really awesome albums, and as long as a band’s allowed to experiment, it’s fine. At the same time, hyperboling how good it is also should be carefully handled, like you’ve said.

  • Great Art Lover

    The following came to mind when I read “…great art never really reveals itself to you, how it’s really all about the search for answers to begin with, and ultimately it doesn’t end up showing you anything about the work itself but ends up completely schooling you on a myriad of other things completely unrelated”:

    – Not only does one not retain all at once the truly rare works, but even within such works it is the least precious parts that one perceives first. Less deceptive than life, these great masterpieces do not give us their best at the beginning.

    Marcel Proust

  • http://homepage.mac.com/tschreck jamms

    brilliant article.

    i disagree with amniesac. i loved the album.

    i’d be interested in reading more of your work if you can show me where.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    My response to this article should be up on Blogcritics now. Like i said, a second opinion, and a different perspective on Kid A and Amnesiac, from another fan.

    -Glen

  • Kevin Davis

    Hey Jamms,

    If you follow this link to rockbeatstone.com
    it will take you to my author bio page, which has links to the pieces I’ve written on the left side of the page. Thanks for your interest, I appreciate it.

    And I do like Amnesiac very much. It just took me a while to get there, and the journey usally makes for better writing than the destination.

    Cheers.

  • bwdaz

    Great read; I’m glad I found this. I too had the same experience going from OK Computer to Kid A.