Radiohead's 'KID A MNESIA' Still Feels Terrifyingly Relevant
Published Nov 04, 2021In hindsight, Y2K paranoia seems absurd — but at the time, it really did feel like the turn of the millennium could reset the world's computer systems, resulting in a cyber-apocalypse that would throw our increasingly digitized world into darkness. It never happened, of course, but it did reflect the mindset of a world that had opened up a Pandora's box of technological possibilities without being quite sure what would come out.
Into this fray marched Radiohead with sibling albums Kid A (2000) and Amnesiac (2001) — LPs that blended rock music's past with a synthetic future, a sense of dread buzzing through a tangle of circuits and wires. The albums weren't about Y2K, exactly, but they foretold of mass alienation and societal collapse — things that, it hindsight, seem prophetic in a broad sort of way. "Ice age coming, ice age coming," frontman Thom Yorke chanted over a cold, clanging beat, heralding the onset of a techno-dystopia as frigid and unnatural as the mountain range on Kid A's front cover. The words "everything in its right place" have never felt less comforting.
These albums — Radiohead's fourth and fifth, now packaged together as the three-disc KID A MNESIA — were famously born from a period of writer's block and turmoil following the massive success of 1997's OK Computer. Most of the band hoped to continue with the rock sound they had already established, but frontman Thom Yorke, feeling repulsed by melody and enamoured with IDM artists like Aphex Twin and Autechre, forced the band down a path that avoided traditional songwriting in favour of amorphous abstractions. They nearly broke up, and producer Nigel Godrich quite literally divided them into separate camps while they worked on the material. To this day, Radiohead remain the reference point for rock bands who set aside their guitars and make alienating electronic music. But, 20 years later, what stands out about the sound of Kid A and Amnesiac isn't how influential they are, but how they resemble little else.
Kid A in particular is fearlessly experimental but laser-focused, with a blend of styles that's wildly diverse yet seamlessly connected by haunting reverb and creeping anxiety. The album's middle section is breathtaking: a jazz rock freakout ("The National Anthem") is followed by a dissociative acoustic lament ("How to Disappear Completely"), then by an ambient sketch ("Treefingers"), leading into the closest thing here to a rock anthem ("Optimistic") and then finally a chilling harbinger of civilization's downfall ("Idioteque"). It's mercilessly bleak in its outlook, and yet the actual sounds — from the purring synthesizer and flittering robo voices of opener "Everything in Its Right Place" to the stately harps of closer "Motion Picture Soundtrack" — offer some comfort amidst despair. It's so consistently masterful that it lends a sense of order to the chaos. If there's an ice age coming, at least we're in good hands.
Amnesiac offers no such consolation. Although presented as a stand-alone album, it still feels a bit like a grab bag of oddments that didn't quite fit on Kid A. Some songs are more straightforward than anything on Kid A (the OK Computer-styled rock arpeggios of "Knives Out"), while others are far more jarring. In particular, the start-stop beats and computerized voices of "Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors" bore themselves harshly into the listener's skull with the delicacy of a pneumatic drill, and half-formed instrumental "Hunting Bears" resembles an isolated guitar stem that was included on the album in some sort of error at the pressing plant.
But most importantly, Amnesiac has "Pyramid Song" — a spine-tingling masterpiece that's a shoo-in for any "Top Five Radiohead Songs" list. Its interpretation of a 4/4 rhythm is so complex that, 20 years later, people are still trying to figure it out, and the lyrics are simultaneously vivid and total nonsense. "I jumped in the river, what did I see? / Black-eyed angels swam with me / A moon full of stars and astral cars," Yorke moans, like a person who has been to the other side of a black hole and lived to tell the tale. It's avant-garde music at its most inviting, sounding freakishly alien and instantly transportive.
If Amnesiac is a bit scattershot, the bonus disc Kid Amnesiae is even more so. A collection of offcuts, it does what deluxe reissue bonus tracks are supposed to do: offer moments of revelation alongside strange castoffs that, even if they don't necessarily need to exist, give devoted fans insight into the creation of the album. The extras here are far less substantial than those from 2017's OKNOTOK, as Kid Amnesiae plays out like a fever dream, with moments of familiarity blending together with scraps of new content, abstract vignettes giving way to more fully realized scenes.
A new version of "Like Spinning Plates" is particularly essential, combining the whooshing digital weirdness of the album version with the haunting piano arpeggios of the beloved live version. It's as if Radiohead mashed up Moonlight Sonata with juddering backmasking to beautiful, unsettling effect.
"Pulk/Pull (True Love Waits Version)" is another absolute treasure for Radiohead completists: the rumbling beat makes sense of the chopped-up version that appears on Amnesiac's "Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors," setting a haunting groove for Yorke to sing a version of the long-elusive "True Love Waits." It stops abruptly and feels unfinished (it certainly doesn't supplant the version that appeared on 2016's A Moon Shaped Pool), but it offers further proof of how "True Love Waits" sounds gorgeous in practically any context.
The recent single "If You Say the Word" is a clear highlight, its acoustic arpeggios and skulking rhythms fitting in nicely with the more straightforward moments of Amnesiac. It's the only brand-new material here, and certainly the only track that sounds fully realized: "Follow Me Around" is a long-circulated B-side, with strains of folk and blues that wouldn't have fit particularly well in any era of Radiohead; "Fog (Again Again Version)" is a peaceful new version of a B-side from the "Knives Out" single, its dry vocal treatment not quite gelling with the haunting atmosphere of the album at large. Several "Untitled" and "Strings" tracks place snippets from the albums in a new context, functioning a bit like a scrapbook for one of most legendary recording sessions in rock history. Like new Oreo flavours, these bonus tracks aren't trying to replace your old faves — they're just intended to drive you back to the original.
As I listen to these songs, Facebook has just announced that it's rebranding under the parent company Meta Platforms, Inc., a move that comes hot on the heels of the damning Facebook Papers leak and ever-increasing awareness of how social media misinformation harms democracy and worsens a deadly pandemic. Donald Trump is launching his own TRUTH Social network — which, in a stranger-that-fiction twist, appears to have directly stolen its code from open-source platform Mastodon. The quaint paranoias of Y2K now feel terrifyingly real. And while it would be an exaggeration to say Radiohead predicted this, KID A MNESIA carries just as much real-world dread as these albums did 20 years ago. Maybe our current fears will blow over just like Y2K did — but something tells me we won't be quite so lucky this time around. (XL)