Published Nov 01, 2000Of course, the very act of using a public forum to express doubts about Kid A, Radiohead's hotly anticipated, exhaustively scrutinised fourth album, only bestows more significance upon it, when all it is, is a significant failure.
I come not to bury Radiohead. I'll warmly welcome into the fold any group who not only demonstrate that relevancy can still be argued for guitar rock, but who in doing so can become fucking huge. And Thom Yorke would be a wonderful singer no matter what genre he might wrap his tenor around. OK Computer, however, the hat trick album whose shadow Kid A so desperately wants to duck, is itself a very good album that, in the absence of any other major rock music to be unnecessarily precious about, was deemed a brilliant one. It's kind of like The Joshua Tree for the 90s, only it's not crap.
I admit that I love when any work of art polarises the public like this, especially when it's something of broad enough interest to involve the mall rats and the art snobs. I'm reminded most of the film Eyes Wide Shut, director Stanley's Kubrick's Cruise/Kidman-driven swan song. Opposing viewpoints raged in a similar fashion, but where its resemblance to Kid A lies most is in that, once the heat of the initial debate has died, all that's left is a so-so work too unremarkable to feel anything about but ambivalence. It's not even a spectacular dud.
I was enamoured of the few snatches I'd heard of Kid A in advance of its release incidentally, the most conventionally melodic of the bunch ("How To Disappear Completely") and the most successfully skewed ("Idioteque"). I was happy, too, to be swept up by the enthusiasms of my friends, some of whom had downloaded the album's entirety from Napster. It's always a nice feeling when there's a general consensus around a band, and that hadn't happened since Nirvana.
What bothered me first about Kid A was its resolute dourness. Yes, I realise that emphasising the cruelty of modern life has been Radiohead's stock in trade since "Creep." But I vividly remember mentally applauding Yorke for a comment he made prior to making Kid A something to the effect that he was tired of the band representing the Western culture of complaint, and that the next album would be a concerted effort to accentuate the idea that everything ain't so bad. It seemed to me to be a necessary move; they couldn't go on being the horsemen of the internal apocalypse much longer. So when Kid A unravelled from the stereo, not even wanting to temper its downcast words with music that's either warmly approachable or excitingly fuck-you, the album as a whole came off with the air of a petulant, spoiled, quasi-depressed adolescent. It's not only Radiohead's least joyous album, it's the first one that's no fun at all.
The most interesting analogy I've read about Kid A's shortcomings is by Jim Irvin from Mojo magazine. He compared Radiohead's career trajectory to that of British 80s group Talk Talk, whose third album, The Colour of Spring, was a similar commercial and critical watershed to OK Computer (albeit on a much smaller scale). In 1988, Talk Talk followed that up with Spirit Of Eden, a thoroughly uncommercial but wholly incredible work that's remained a benchmark for ambient/experimental music (and, on a subtler level, an endorsement of following the muse at all costs) for almost 13 years.
Radiohead, on the other hand, seem to have missed the point of experimental music altogether. Virtually any true visionary of left-field music has said at some time that their work is a manifestation of their personal definition of beauty, even if the music in which it's expressed is confrontational, harsh even. Kid A exudes no beauty because Radiohead are too self-conscious, too distractedly working in opposition to their natural talents and instincts, to achieve that state of bliss where magic happens. They've achieved it in the past, and I'm betting that the ability to do so again hasn't deserted them.
Perhaps the context in which Kid A can be considered a success is that music buyers who aren't naturally investigative about experimental music will use the album as an entry point to obscurer, braver, stranger, prettier, better music. Which isn't to say that obscurer is necessarily better, but since we all know what the commercial landscape is like these days anyway, and since that seems to be exactly what Kid A is implying, well, it'll just have to do.