Radiohead’s new release challenges fans and critics
”Kid A,” the new album from Radiohead, is: (a) a major work of art that definitively advances rock & roll into the 21st century; (b) a slab of noisy, unmelodic tripe proving once and for all that rock critics are snotty poseurs and record buyers are easily fooled sheep; (c) a fascinating pop culture mind f— of the first order; (d) exactly the album the group wanted to make at this particular time and place.
Personally, as much as I’d love to say (a), I’d have to go with (c) and (d) after the first five listens I’ve given to ”Kid A.” On the basis of the soaringly morbid arena rock of 1995’s ”The Bends” (still the most transfixing thing they’ve done, in my opinion) and 1997’s slightly more spaced out (but still majestic) ”OK Computer” — and thanks to a brilliant heads in the sand PR campaign that upped the band’s mystique tremendously — ”Kid A” came soaring out of the ether to land at No. 1 on the Billboard chart its first week of release. Without a single or a video, without a tour — without any of the standard rock star moves, in fact.
In other words, this is Radiohead’s big mainstream moment, and they’ve chosen to greet it with a deeply inscrutable collection of… well, ”songs” is too precise a word. So 20th century, don’t you know. Try ”atmospheres,” or ”soundscapes,” or ”sonic attitudes.” As has been much noted already, ”Kid A” opens with a suite of cuts that recall nothing so much as Brian Eno’s groundbreaking ambient work in the 1970s, splashed with a dab of musique concrete. Thom Yorke’s plangent voice is mixed way down or given a woozy electronic veneer. It isn’t until the fifth cut, ”Optimistic,” that a recognizable rock song structure emerges from the murk.
Is this a willful slap in the face of the music buying public? Possibly, if not likely — see (d) above — but that won’t stop the folks who came in late and bought the hype from feeling like they ”woke up sucking on a lemon.” Check out some of the 800 and counting customer reviews posted on Amazon’s ”Kid A” page to see just how ticked off a rock fan scorned can get. Talk to people who watched Radiohead perform on ”Saturday Night Live” last week: The image of this heralded ”guitar band” squatting on the floor twiddling synth knobs pretty much defines ”antipopulist” for this season, and Yorke’s speaking in tongues performance of ”Idioteque” was emotionally compelling, disturbing, and profoundly weird all at the same time.
Not that it matters. Like all good noise, ”Kid A” will find the audience that cherishes it, and everyone else will move on to the Next Big Thing. There are precedents here: Remember the dismay when Prince followed up ”Purple Rain” with the wifty ”Around the World in a Day”? Remember how Lou Reed fans (and everyone else) fled the dissonant flip o’ the bird that was ”Metal Machine Music”? This is just the sound of people brave and/ or contemptuous enough to follow their muse, even if it leads them into places the rest of us (and their record company) don’t want to go.
The big losers here? Music critics and all the others who held Radiohead up as the last keepers of the rock & roll flame. I include myself in this: ”The Bends” was the first album in years that made me feel like I was 14 again and just discovering, say, Zep for the first time. Was it foolish of me to hope that that sensation could be extended over several albums? Well, yeah, of course — I’m as human as the next guy. Does it still mean I can retain creative respect for Thom Yorke and company even as I fear they’ve disappeared up their own behinds? Oddly, yes. Whatever else they’ve done — and ”Kid A” isn’t a terrible record, just vastly different from what the media marketplace wants it to be — Radiohead hasn’t sold out. They may have, however, told us to take our rock-star dreams and stick them up our collective wazoo. I’ll tell you after I listen to the damn thing five more times.