Still Learning How to Lay Down My Life
301 · 2 November 00
Radiohead: Kid A
Here is a stultifyingly secure prediction I could have made months ago, and will make now even though I think it's already been confirmed: Kid A will be the subject of a numbing amount of ill-considered analysis and myopic acclaim. I developed a cynical two-part theory about the high critical esteem in which OK Computer was held (actually, I developed it for Moby's Play, but then realized it was equally useful for OK Computer), which was that a) it was no fun, so you could support it without running any risk of seeming shallow, and b) it was meaningless straight to the core, so you didn't have to worry about staking yourself to a position on it and then having somebody after you decode the thing and make you look foolish. It was a depressing, self-contained record, without any flaws in the usual sense of the word, so it was safe to endorse, in the same way that it's safe to say that your favorite writer is Hemingway, or your favorite movie is old and French. Admittedly, of course, your favorite writer might be Hemingway, and you might honestly have thought Play and OK Computer were brilliant. But that wasn't why they ended up at the top of critics' polls, and it isn't why just about everybody who writes about rock music will feel obliged to weigh in on Kid A, whether they really care about it or not. Radiohead have become a convenient touchstone of critical seriousness, all the more useful because their music doesn't overtly imply any need for a prior grounding in culture (as with the Fugees) or history (as with Dylan).
And certainly that's part of why I bought the record, myself. I liked Pablo Honey, The Bends and some of the OK Computer-era b-sides well enough not to give up on Radiohead because I didn't like one album, but I came to really intensely dislike OK Computer, and if there was ever a chance of my making a one-strike exception of something, that was it. In an increasingly fractured world, though, there are relatively few points of anything like universal reference. If you want to be able to talk to thoughtful strangers about rock music, this winter, you will need to have formulated reactions to Kid A, All That You Can't Leave Behind and one obscure record of your choice (to which you will allude as a kind of secret-handshake demonstration of the breadth of your knowledge). I might personally prefer this year's compulsory topics to be the Loud Family's Attractive Nuisance and Camden's Reel Time Canvas, but I don't have the power to make you listen to those, and I do have the power to make me listen to Kid A. So I put aside my low expectations and try to listen to it with, if not an open mind exactly, then at least a semblance of journalistic reserve.
Most observers will say that Kid A is starkly beautiful (by which they mean mildly off-putting) and/or bracingly imaginative (by which they mean that they don't know who it sounds like, and they're statistically confident that you won't, either). Maybe my description will be no better, but I will attempt one nonetheless. If The Bends was anthemic, in the old-U2 sense, and OK Computer was brittle, intricate, evasive and bleak, then Kid A is less precious, less relentlessly erratic, less confrontational and maybe marginally more accessible. The simplest explanation for the transition from OK Computer to Kid A that I've managed to devise is that it sounds as if Radiohead have spent a lot of the intervening years watching Volkswagen commercials. Mute Thom Yorke's vocal tracks and this album's distressed, mechanistic music could be the continuation of the long evolution of electronica that already ran from Jean Michel Jarre to the Future Sound of London to Aphex Twin and Autechre, the path now veering slightly towards the insistent angular austerity of Trans Am and Tortoise. I suspect there are more appropriate references than those, but my electronica awareness is only sketchy, so I don't know what they are. It's an album, at any rate, of pressed vocal layers, muted synthesizer figures, clicky percussion loops, scattered noise squalls, very few recognizable guitars and Thom Yorke sounding slightly less miasmatic and misanthropic (or perhaps just less convinced that misanthropy is an antidote to boredom) than last time. There are only three tracks I'd count as reaching toward rock coherency: the groaning "The National Anthem", maybe distantly derived from U2's "Bullet the Blue Sky", but undermined by a horn cacophony like Oingo Boingo's compiled rancor from watching the sales figures for Smash Mouth albums; the tense, rumbling, Verve-ish "Optimistic", also reminiscent in places of a darker The Joshua Tree; and the jittery, muttering, obsessive-propulsive "Idioteque", like a remake of Fine Young Cannibals' "She Drives Me Crazy" from after mania set in. The other seven are either interstitial or balladic, depending on your attention span and the temperament of your insomnia. The rising "Everything in Its Right Place" lays julienned vocal samples over glassy, distracted keyboard loops and a muffled kick pulse. The comparatively sunny "Kid A" has echoey synth-bells, vocals sung through what sounds like either a wind-up toy megaphone or a very large metal flexi-straw, and a furtive, sort of drum-and-bass-like rhythm track. "How to Disappear Completely"'s introspective bass murmur, staid acoustic guitar, spectral strings, delicate brass cascades and mournful vocals remind me how Marillion could see themselves in "Fake Plastic Trees". The glacial instrumental "Treefingers" reminds me distinctly of Stuart Dempster's textural water-tank trombone concertos. The busily confused "In Limbo" offers a musical demonstration of the idea that walking is basically a recurrent failure to fall down correctly. Until the noisy coda, at least, "Morning Bell" actually does strike me, to my considerable surprise, like a morning song, picking its way through the previous night's wreckage with a calm, curious grace. And if there's one subject of which Radiohead could most clearly be considered the modern masters, it's cinematic exit music, to which canon they here add the ornate, elegiac "Motion Picture Soundtrack", which contains what is, as far as I know, the only concerted attempt in the history of music to depict cherubim as a particularly intractable species of hornet. Kid A is, I think, for an album that arrives with so many preconceptions inevitably attached, courageously self-possessed. The four Radiohead albums are approximately the same length (46, 49, 53, 50), but where Pablo Honey felt like it had a normal rock album's scope, to me, The Bends was epic way out of proportion to its actual extent, and OK Computer seemed nearly interminable, Kid A is more like a tightly-conceived EP that takes quite a few more objective minutes than subjective ones, possibly due to relativistic time-dilation. Asked for a sprawling novel of fin-de-siècle ennui, Radiohead have instead produced a succinct novella of engaged doubt. If it is important, and it might be, it doesn't achieve significance through mass or inertia. Whether the band planned it this way consciously or not, Radiohead have taken ingenious advantage of the fact that nobody will be allowed to ignore this record by making a record that does not, on any other grounds, demand to be confronted. Kid A and Reel Time Canvas are far more similar than their environments and contexts appear to permit, and I'm not sure which is a braver and stranger accomplishment, a world-scale debut album by four guys from Milwaukee you've never heard of, or a quiet, studied, human-scale record by a band with every spotlight on them.
The lineages of this album's disassembled parts, however, are not how I experience it. I recognize the song-ness of "The National Anthem" and "Optimistic", intellectually, but to me "Idioteque" is so much more mesmerizing than anything else on Kid A that the rest of the record becomes its frame. And I thus, in the end, understand Kid A primarily by reference to the last record by an expectation-laden British band that I believe was constructed as a bulky frame for a single irresistible song, namely Blur. But as a trip to the Frick, in New York, over the weekend reminded me, framing can be interesting and complex. The Frick's permanent collection is composed almost exclusively of paintings in reserved, representational styles, the three Vermeers and handful of dramatic Turner harbor tableaux diluted liberally by routine portraits of fat, forgotten noblemen, but nearly all the paintings are mounted in frames out of Medusa nightmares, wriggling, writhing, perilously overwrought monstrosities that relate an excoriating biography of a robber-baron's clumsy, ignorant, overfunded belligerence, as if the master is hard of hearing and the servants have learned basic ventriloquism, and they follow you through the house, two deferential steps behind, whispering a running commentary on their employer's atrocities. Without the frames, the house would be just another small museum; with them, it's a looming monument to a kind of excess I'm not sure we're capable of any more. Blur, though, as a frame for "Song 2", to me has none of the Frick's magnificence. Not only do I not like any of the other songs, but I can't even hear why I was supposed to. They all seem like mean-spirited and lazy attempts to frustrate pop conventions to no compensating end, or like the band's extended fuck-you to everybody they tricked into buying the record based on a cynically atypical (and cursorily dispatched) single. Kid A, on the other hand, builds up to "Idioteque" (it's track eight of ten, where "Song 2" is two of fourteen), and I get to the end of the record thinking not that I've been tricked, but that I've now heard that one song in the expansive context that befits it. It is a three-minute jewel (albeit one that weighs five minutes on Earth-bound scales) that deserves a fifty-minute setting, and they gave it one. I bought this record expecting to play it as few times as were absolutely necessary to say why I distrust people who claim to like it, and I have instead (or maybe this is what it takes) listened to it twice a day for a month. I start anticipating "Idioteque" with the first five-note descending keyboard run of "Everything in Its Right Place", I'm in a frenzied rapture by the time it actually plays, and my heart-rate doesn't stabilize again until the CD stops spinning (after "Motion Picture Soundtrack" ends there is a minute of silence, a few seconds of symphonic ambience and another couple minutes of silence, and this is one of the very rare cases in which I think the band understood exactly the effect this would produce). My smug theories have deserted me. I don't know what the album means, I don't know what the lyrics say, and I'm not trying to find out. "Fun" isn't at all the right word, of course, but as best I can tell my enjoyment of this album is real and plain, not ironic or academic in any way. It is arguably the one record best prepared, even invited, to submit the first provisional definition of the new century, and it graciously declines. Although, now that I think about it, that might itself be the answer, not a way of avoiding it. The old century is over, and we stand at the beginning of a new one, and maybe the greatest gift we have given ourselves, by this arbitrary numerological discipline, is seventy or eighty years of space in which to stop always trying to summarize and just say some new things. When we look back from 2100 (or 2010, or 2001) Kid A could seem like a major new beginning or a trivial false start, fundamentally original or essentially derivative, alien or humane. If we are smart, we will treat not knowing as an invaluable opportunity not to care.
The Gloria Record: A Lull in Traffic
I must not have been the only person worried that Radiohead would opt not to make a Radiohead album, because the Austin quintet The Gloria Record went so far as to make one of their own, just in case. In an inversion of Kid A, this record is an EP in fact (five songs, twenty-four minutes), but feels like an album to me in practice. The Radiohead it imagines is ahistorical, but something like how the band might have turned out if, after living through OK Computer, they'd decided it was a mistake and a poor successor to The Bends, and gone back in time to redo it with the benefit of paradox-inducing hindsight. The music is grander and more methodically paced than the bulk of The Bends and Pablo Honey, but retains those albums' fervent passions in place of OK Computer's bilious anomie. "A Lull in Traffic" combines pensive acoustic guitar, pinging keyboards, shuffling drums and Chris Simpson's yearning voice, and comes perhaps closest to Radiohead's "High and Dry". "The Arctic Cat" is brasher, more electric and more stirring, driving bass, eerily synthetic strings and an oblique drum clatter pacing Simpson through a distended vocal part that sounds like those videos look in which the band is filmed lip-synching at double-speed and then slowed down to match the song's real tempo. "Tired and Uninspired" puts off the drums for over a minute, but then relaxes into a charged, mid-tempo lullaby buoyed by a regal, Marillion-esque lead-guitar line. The long, dreamlike "Miserere" fills out the arrangement with banks of shimmery keyboards, cycling guitar and a legato cello, and reminds me in passing of both Pallas (some dramatic, swooping guitar hooks) and Sunny Day Real Estate (something about the strain in Simpson's voice). And the explicitly valedictory "A Bye" combines spectacular, nearly-Vangelis-grade massed keyboards, cavernous vocal reverb and booming timpani with frayed demo-recording hiss and odd rehearsal-space artifacts. A full album would normally have twice as many songs, but these five trace the outline, it seems to me, of the structure the missing five would fill in, and as the other exhibit at the Frick (a collection of small oil sketches, displayed apologetically in the basement in very different sorts of frames) reminded me, sometimes the proof of concept is magical in a way that the implied execution wouldn't be, or needn't.
The one obtrusively un-Radiohead-like facet of this EP, for me, is that Chris Simpson's lyrics are almost morbidly cogent, with none of Thom Yorke's impressionistic ambiguity. "A Lull in Traffic" opens with "Just lonely, baby, / Doesn't mean I'm looking for a friend. / I've got plenty, / I'm still learning how to lay down my life / For them. / Don't want to find yourself / Alone at thirty-five, / Spending half what you make on your car / And hating that drive.", like a "Fake Plastic Trees" that doesn't get distracted by the texture of the plastic itself, and when it resolves to the oscillating refrain "You're just like everybody else; / There's no one like you", it makes me think "Fake Plastic Trees"' "It wears me out" gave up too soon. "The Arctic Cat", despite the random-sounding title, is a fairly haunting parent's promise and warning to a child. "In all of the uncertainties, well certainly / You will be loved, and lifted up, / And never let to want of anything at all." And "Don't think you're safe, / That cat is coming back again someday / To have his way with all of us. / I'm afraid he does not make friends so easily." The biblical implications of "Miserere" are not idle, the song twined around a vividly messianic dream, ending with the plaintive and unexpected query "And when you go to sleep at night, / Don't you ever feel the weight / Of all the things that make you happy, / That float around you, pull you down, / And don't you ever want to stand up on the waves and run?" And "A Bye", more "MLK" than anything Radiohead, takes three minutes to deliver the simple benediction "Sing me to sleep underneath a blanket of stars tonight, where all my hopes and fears look childish in the light." I'm not sure any Radiohead revisionism could get us from "Paranoid Android" and "Karma Police" to this in one step. But we go to sleep, and wake up in the morning, and all sorts of impossible things are sitting half-built on the lawn.
Unbelievable Truth: Sorrythankyou
Sibling relationships are not the most thoughtful segues, but the only reason I ever heard of Unbelievable Truth is that singer/guitarist Andy Yorke is Thom's brother. I expected Almost Here, their first album, to resemble Radiohead the same way Paul Janovitz's Cold Water Flat resemble Bill Janovitz's Buffalo Tom, and after discovering it didn't I never managed to cultivate another reason to care about it. They opened for some Tori Amos shows, though, which earned them points with me, and then drummer/producer Nigel Powell showed up accompanying Emm Gryner on her recent living room tour, which was dedication beyond reason, and easily worth a second-album purchase in return.
Sometimes, indeed, you can hear shards of Thom's voice in Andy's, but I'm pretty sure I would not have guessed their relationship if I hadn't been told. Thom basically has two intensity levels, angelic catharsis and terrified whisper. Andy does both falsetto and hush, at times, but usually he sings somewhere in between, and reminds me as often of Simon Le Bon and Jules Shear. In the bigger rock songs here he sounds a bit overwhelmed, to me, but I find almost all of the smaller ones captivating. The harried, urgent "Landslide" could be a cross between David Gray and Simple Minds. "A Name", a slow, ringing piano ballad, could be one of Emm's. "Disarm" has some Radiohead-ish structure, but the understated chorus is closer to Iain Matthews. "Home Again" conflates the early Posies with the dolorous Beachwood Sparks. "Daylight" is like a Kind of Like Spitting or old Elliott Smith song angling for a trade to Sara Hickman. The serene "Covers" descends from Paul Simon and Neil Finn, and "Hypnotist" is more Finn-like still. The gruesome "I Can't Wait" weaves together Billy Joel, Michael Penn and E. "Let It Know" bounces amiably from Lennon-esque piano verses to abruptly sprayed Chris Whitley-ish choruses.
But the song without which I might have let this band slip by again, and with which I start to think they might have a role in my life, is "Shed Your Skin". The accompaniment is just piano and acoustic guitar at the beginning, a cello joining in later. Andy sings most of it in a warm, unadorned voice not too unlike Darden Smith or Luka Bloom's, but in the choruses Laura Kramer adds a few wispy tendrils of Tracey Thorn-like harmony, and the familiar injunction "Shed your skin" takes on entirely different nuances when two people sing it together. Skin-shedding, by yourself, is as likely self-flagellation as metamorphosis, but if two people do it together, maybe we aren't flaying ourselves, we're breaking through the long-vestigial membrane that has kept us, too long, too safe from each other.