The most revealing moments in Meeting People Is Easy, the 1998 documentary on Radiohead, are the most tedious: the recurring scenes in which the band is begrudgingly promoting OK Computer in interview after interview. By movie’s end, they’re still talking to reporters, but the squint in head ‘Head Thom Yorke’s eye has grown more piercing, his answers more opaque. With his concave physique and mottled hair, he resembles less a rock star than a small-town British thief after a relentless interrogation.
Intentionally or not, those episodes are apt metaphors for a band that’s grown more distant and willfully obscure with each record. This inclination reaches its apex on Kid A, which makes the daunting OK Computer seem as accessible as a sitcom theme song. Much of Kid A doesn’t sound like Radiohead at all. Songs float by on the faintest of heartbeat pulses, intergalactic noises streaking like comets across the melodies. Ecclesiastical keyboards gently nudge the songs along. Built around a piano that sounds like elevator chimes, the opening ”Everything in Its Right Place” features a tape loop of a mysterious speaker that turns into Yorke’s higher-than-usual voice singing non sequitur lines like ”Yesterday I woke up sucking on a lemon.” On the next song, ”Kid A,” Yorke’s vocal sounds like gargling through an electronic foghorn, turning the lyrics to mush. Not until the fourth track is it obvious we’re even listening to him.
Kid A (named after ”a computer program of children’s voices,” according to the band) consciously recalls a time when rock fans plopped themselves down in front of stereos and absorbed albums with reverent intensity. It’s even structured like two distinctly different sides of an LP. On the first half, Radiohead discover their inner Pink Floyd. ”The National Anthem” shifts from a gritty punk-rock bass intro to a headache-inducing passage of free-form jazz horns. ”How to Disappear Completely” evokes two of the band’s best-known traits — sonic rapture and emotional weariness — but with a more slothlike tempo and an overall sense of dislocation (”I’m not here/This isn’t happening,” sings Yorke). The instrumental ”Treefingers” is primarily a drony hum. All of these tracks are ”adventurous,” ”mind-expanding,” and other adjectives typically applied to the collected works of Brian Eno and Robert Fripp, although it’s debatable whether anyone but Radiohead loyalists will want to hear them more than a few times.
Halfway through, the music grows both more accessible and more majestic. Yorke’s voice returns to its natural wounded timbre and conveys a rueful regret. ”Optimistic” and ”In Limbo” find the group on more familiar terrain, whipping up guitar-fueled storms on themes of emotional or physical disconnect. The vaguely apocalyptic ”Idioteque” fuses the most intentionally cut-rate of drum-machine beats with harmonies that recall late-period Beach Boys, and somehow it works. The album reaches a crescendo with ”Morning Bell,” a gorgeous rumination that hints at the collapse of an especially demanding affair (”You can keep the furniture … /Where’d you park the car?”). ”Motion Picture Soundtrack” also seems to concern the sun setting on a relationship, but this time the stately synthesizer washes and cascading, angelic harps conjure end-of-the-day melancholy.
Mind you, these discoveries unfolded only after repeated plays. On first listen, Kid A sounds like doggerel — effects with beats, and off-putting effects at that. Only after a dozen or so attentive listens does the album reveal itself as sublimely restless mood music. And even then, it remains elusive and aloof: Some songs are beautifully ambient, others are filler, and some are one and the same. The album may be a sonic journey, yet by its conclusion, you’re not exactly sure where it’s taken you, other than back to the realization that Radiohead still play by their own rules.
Rule bending, in fact, is the point of Kid A. The music industry assumes today’s record buyers don’t have the time, patience, interest, or schedules to absorb music that doesn’t instantly grab them. By contrast, Kid A demands undivided attention; it’s a gauntlet thrown down before both the audience and the business. (To hammer the point home, no singles or full-length videos will accompany it.) In anointing themselves the saviors of serious rock, Radiohead are cocky and self-important, but you have to applaud them for the effort. As unnervingly cryptic as Kid A can be, it is a genuinely challenging work in a generally unchallenging time. It’s the Ralph Nader of pop. B+