Second Look: Radiohead – KID A MNESIA

[XL; 2021]

I’m seeing shooting stars all the time these days. Sitting by the open window at night, in the soon to be steel sky, space rocks break apart in flames, drawing lines up there. Maybe it’s just junk – we’ve been in space for a while, god knows what’s rocketing back down. I still make wishes on them now and then, but part of me has stopped believing. Time does that to you: what once seemed special becomes, as the occasion repeats and disappointments mount, less magical. Nowadays, I cherish the moment of sitting by the open window and being able to gaze into the night sky more than the brief fiery flash of a cosmic body dying in the hemisphere.

As one grows older, a change of perspective is unavoidable. Transformations occur inside and outside: friendships drift, relationships break apart and, worst of all, most humans become comfortable with morphing into cogs within a Capitalist system, upholding a status quo that promises them minor achievements and holograms of happiness pre-determined by others. And, one by one, the ideals and views once held drift away. As we see younger generations crushed in the windmill of global economical fallouts, the realization mounts that the things we’ve been told are true have been lies. The status symbols of the past, many of them impossible to attain, lose their glamour, many of them hoaxes perpetrated by clever marketing.

That spiral of suburban uncanniness precedes the genesis myth of Radiohead’s most impressive release cycle. Before recording what we now celebrate with the 20th anniversary reissue KID A MNESIA, the Oxford five piece had released the album of the 1990s in OK Computer, a cross breed of British and American aesthetics, a marriage of Pink Floyd’s paranoid folk and The Beatles’ psychedelic art rock.

OK Computer was an album that managed to distil the zeitgeist better than the preceding grunge movement ever could. Instead of just documenting adolescent directionlessness, the record painted a grotesque but pretty picture of failed boomer ideals to the backdrop of dystopian necro-capitalism, revealing the cannibalistic undertones of the daily grind. Its massive success left the band hollowed out – the brilliant documentary Meeting People is Easy artfully frames their slow dissolution into paralysis. The new greatest band in the world seemed to go nowhere. And then, somehow, they came back, releasing two records now regarded among the best ever made, with Kid A (the first) widely regarded as a contender for greatest album of all time.

However, this success story, which came at a great cost, doesn’t mean that these albums, and the band as an entity, didn’t have detractors. Upon release, the album was awarded with the unfortunate adjective ‘unlistenable’. Those fans who still labelled The Bends their personal favourite – mostly rock heads who heralded Oasis the greatest band of the decade – couldn’t get into the electronic avant-garde approach or jazzy instrumentation.

The slightly more elite American intelligentsia read the band as miserablists who morphed from Dinosaur Jr. and Pavement plagiarists to U2 and Warp records pastiche. There’s even the current day meme of ‘I bet he listens to Radiohead’, which reframes the band as somewhat of a nerdy loner’s go-to (ironically, the political statements interwoven throughout Radiohead’s musical and online work fits better with the newfound progressivism of Bernie-voters than that of Clinton-heads). Even some of the fans who loved the band’s labyrinthine website, stuffed with strange cartoon snuff movies and arcane imagery, found the albums slightly bizarre and hard to understand.

What did not transpire to all of them equally was that these records themselves functioned as portals into a parallel dimension. With no lyrics, music videos or singles accompanying Kid A, and no proper tour to market it, the record did feel like a future occult artefact sent back in time, akin to the fossilized remains of Alien’s Space Jockey, the nightmare in Prince of Darkness, or the cursed VHS in The Ring. Something unintelligible, surreal, and cold.

But then it is also very much of its time. Much of it inspired directly by the spectral Krautrock of Can and Tangerine Dream and the audio patterns summoned by Warp’s chaos magicians, it feels like a roadmap to the then-blossoming filesharing era, when Napster allowed world wide web surfers to democratically dive into the libraries of modern music. An album by Faust was all of a sudden as accessible as the new Autechre, and they could easily be contained and digested.

In that sense, Kid A is almost like the quintessential mixtape of the Millennium era – but this ignores the glacial quality of its digital worldbuilding. As the towering virtual landscape on the cover implies, the record succeeds in birthing a parallel reality of virtual boundlessness. While none of the band members seems to be a gamer, it’s still interesting to realize how much “Treefingers” sounds like Resident Evil’s safe room soundtrack. The reoccurring imagery of disasters, haunted houses, split personalities, cyclical reincarnation and dissolution of identity fit perfectly into Y2K paranoia of the computer as harbinger of paranormal experiences: videogames, chat rooms and the web as liminal spaces.

In this sense, Kid A stands tall as a masterpiece of cyberpunk hauntology, long before the concept of vaporwave allowed for these terms to merge into a musical genre (side note: it would be interesting to make a case for “Meeting in the Aisle”, “Fitter Happier”, “Treefingers” and “Kid A” as prophets of vaporwave aesthetics, especially regarding the shared political positions on consumer culture and the dissolution of suburban idyll). In a way, they created the sonic equivalent to Sony’s fabled idea of “The Third Place”.

Amnesiac seemed to break the dark spell, providing an earthier sound along with singles and music videos. While some of the preceding claustrophobia was retained, there was a newfound groove and emotional clarity to this little sibling – more jazz, more funk, more Kraut. This was the album that dared to get even more abstract, with the experiments being more manic and the string sections almost bordering on Arabic aesthetics.

It’s kind of the cool kid’s favourite these days, with a few think pieces declaring it the band’s best. Maybe some of this also has to do with the album’s aura merging seamlessly to the world surrounding it. As Radiohead performed one of the few concerts for the album in Berlin on the evening of September 11, things had changed drastically, the submerged paranoia and political tension exploding across screens and inside of bodies, rational thought disintegrating like shooting stars on the night sky. Suddenly, every room became the eerie safe room in Resident Evil’s Spencer Mansion, “Treefingers” playing quietly in the background.

Now it has been 20 years – everything has been said on those two records that can be said, every position taken. The B-sides, once hard to acquire via sharing networks, are now easily accessible on Spotify (“Worrywort” is still one of the most serene Radiohead songs most fans don’t know) and both albums are now cast on red vinyl as nifty fetish objects. It would have been easy to just slap on the B-sides and maybe the two or so unreleased sketches that remained, but Radiohead actually did something totally in line with their usually clever strategies: they took what little was left and created a third sibling out of it. With the B-sides – “Worrywort”, “Fog”, “Kinetic” and so on – mostly retaining the feeling of standalone tracks, they would have felt like a bonus disc after all, so hey, why not create a totally new experience, which also doubles as an art piece in its own right?

The resulting is a truly special work. It merges alternate tracks, seemingly remixes elements foreign to each other and finds a wholly new gestalt within. Now starting with a Piano-led rendition of “Like Spinning Plates”, this alternate timeline album merges strange ambient pieces that still retain brief glimpses of “Kid A” vocoder with muted glockenspiel variants of “Fog” and a blend of “True Love Waits” and “Pulk/ Pull Revolving Doors”. Finally unearthed ‘holy grails’ “If You Say the Word” and “Follow Me Around” fit perfectly into this context, the former a jazz ballad that could have been placed perfectly on any of Radiohead’s albums, the latter a charismatic, skeletal twin to “I Might be Wrong”.

The second side of KID A MNESIA‘s third disc aims for an ever more ethereal – and haunted – atmosphere of mostly instrumental pieces that blend into each other. If the first side is reflective of Thom Yorke’s solo ventures, then the second half is closer to Jonny Greenwood’s strange minimalism that adorns arthouse soundtracks, all nervous rhythms and orchestral ambience. The climactic string section of “How to Disappear Completely” perfectly closes off the album on a melodramatic gut punch, but also the strange realization that these familiar sounds, after 20 years, can still contain fresh perspectives. Much of that is thanks to the painterly quality the band has attained while remixing these individual elements into an organic whole. Somehow, they created something from the old fragments that merges with their current day interests, but still comes across as a work of its own.

Much of that has to do with the fact that time has moved on. The dark, haunted cyberpunk sound of Kid A still seems timeless and as gruesomely futuristic as it did upon release, but the way we look at virtual rooms and the access tools to our second life has changed. The ghosts from back then are vastly different from the spectres we face now, with the band eerily prescient but the threat rendered as comic bears in the past. Similarly, Amnesiac’s polymorphous symbol of the crying minotaur has evolved, with the record’s blend of jazz, funk and electronica most prominently gaining an heir in the waves of David Bowie’s Blackstar.

These records, as bristling and lush as they are, also remain static. Reconfiguring the then so that it fits not just the artist’s taste, but the logic of a mind educated by the didactic possibilities of Spotify, the hypnagogic lucidity of vaporwave and the obsession with liminal spaces in a world ravaged by ‘the new normal’ of lockdowns and climate disasters is a masterstroke. It’s a rare and wondrous occasion, and a little magical, too. As we gaze into the abyss of a world where everything is accessible at any second and where virtual paths of light are parallel to those of darkness, it appears in a bright flash, hidden to those content on watching. Quick: make a wish – it might come true!