Albums of the Decade: Kid A

12/23/2009 11:00 AM |

If the titular “Kid A,” supposedly the theoretical first product-to-be
of human cloning efforts, had been actually been born back when
Radiohead’s now-legendary fourth album was released, he’d be just shy
of ten years old by now. At this point his namesake is almost a moral
imperative for “albums of the decade,” so here I am, and man, ain’t
that some shit: probably one of the most polarizing records to come
out in our lifetimes, “Kid A” might to this day still define the notion
of a band shredding expectations, creating Great Art with
admirably little regard for their audience and eventually emerging
triumphant at the other end.

Lord, how I hated it at first. I quite adored Radiohead, or at least
I had up through “OK Computer,” but the heights (er, depths?)
of alt-rock obsession in the teenage guitarist I once was would only
allow the slightest deviation from MTV Buzz Bin tunnel vision, and
watching the band that gave “Creep” to the world (or, directly to me,
it seemed sometimes, the still more depressing “Prove Yourself”) put
out an album where the closest they got to a genuine guitar riff was in
“Optimistic” felt like low-grade treason.

I still remember the day that all changed for me: the following year,
shortly after September 11th, with the airy click of the “Idioteque”
drums as the background behind some logo-filler spot on MTV. All of a
sudden, it was as if the dystopian world they’d been mumbling about
since the days of “Karma Police” and even “Fake Plastic Trees” was
actually coming true. The future, in other words, was no longer a
vague abstraction to be feared and somehow infinitely mentally
postponed–it was something that actually happens when you’re not
paying attention, and you’d better fucking learn to deal with it. From
then on, it was probably OK to replace guitars with synthesizers.

It was all downhill from there. For a long time it felt like nobody
else had come close to publishing a more exciting opening figure than
the descending keyboard line in “Everything In Its Right Place,”
probably still the album’s definitive gut-punch and the hook which was
so savagely plunged through my lip from the first moment I revisited
the album with fresh ears and enough time elapsed for my silly hurt
feelings to have scabbed over, but I realize now that it probably has
just as much to do with the excitement of knowing what is to follow.

Most immediately at least, that would be the title track, likewise at
first a hard-knock of blippy percussion and abstract vocal warps (in
comparison, the second song on the preceding album was the concrete,
multi-movement — and, yes, guitar-driven — lead single “Paranoid
Android”) which would eventually morph into what might just be the
most successful use of nursery bells in rock, if you could even call
it that anymore. But you couldn’t, really; Radiohead, having long
cultivated and complained about and composed around these nebulous
fears about our souls being liposuctioned out from beneath us — “Heat
the pins and stab them in/You have turned me into this/Just wish that
it was bullet proof,” and so on — had finally decided that since
nobody was quite getting the message, they needed instead to embody
it, themselves becoming something too challenging to
be ignored, too terrifying not to at least be remembered, whether by
way of a temple or a crater.