Are Radiohead OK?
I have heard the future of rock'n'roll, and it's a load of self-indulgent, semi-ambient twaddle. Radiohead's new album, Kid A, is the most hotly-anticipated album of the year, pushing even U2's forthcoming album down the ladder of conversation topics. Its release date is September 29th, and already the media are sharpening their screen pointers for the pretentious think pieces and puffed-up reviews. Q Magazine - in an exclusive interview with the band - has already hailed Kid A as Radiohead's greatest work to date; yet, when this major event on the musical calendar finally comes to pass, I believe it will turn out to be the biggest disappointment of the year. Let's put it this way: after Oasis released Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants earlier this year, Robbie Williams cheekily sent them a sympathy card. He should send Radiohead a wreath. Kid A is a confused, aimless mess of ambient electronica, misguided jazznoodlings, meandering avant-garde improvisations, and floaty, rudderless soundscapes. Guitar riffs, melodies and choruses have been replaced by diffident string-crunching, desolate wailing and juddering, repeated phrases. There are no tunes as such - only How To Disappear Completely and Optimistic come close to conventional song structure, and even they defy enjoyment by being resolutely downbeat and depressing.
With Kid A, Radiohead have made an album which is deliberately abstruse, wilfully esoteric and wantonly unfathomable. It's as if, in an attempt to escape the confines of rock'n'roll, the Oxford band have made a break for the outer edges of pop, where beats become distended, melodies get bent out of shape, and lyrics are twisted out of their usual context. Unfortunately, the cosmic joke has backfired - Kid A is the sound of a band which has gotten trapped in its own musical twilight zone. They seem to have tuned out their instincts, turned off their guitars, and dropped out of the rock'n'roll game. Judging from the music on this record, it sounds like they weren't having very much fun anyway.
How To Disappear Completely details the pain and isolation Thom Yorke felt when he played a concert in front of 30,000 Irish fans at the RDS in 1997. His voice on this track is unnerving, a ghostly, disembodied keening, as though Yorke were hovering outside his own body and watching himself from above. He describes the feeling of "floating down the Liffey" and concludes "that's not me - I'm not here". This song captures Kid A in a nutshell: an inert, emotionless cloud of sound floating in the air, full of anguish and agony, but empty of substance. Perhaps that was the effect Yorke was trying to achieve. Optimistic is anything but. Phil Selway's drums spell out doom, while the guitars of Jonny Greenwood and Ed O'Brien act as pallbearers for such cadaverous lyrics as "flies are floating round my head". When pop stars start singing about flies floating round their heads, or waking up "sucking on a lemon" (Everything In Its Right Place), it's hard to stay interested.
It's also hard to conceal the hope that perhaps Radiohead actually are playing a cosmic joke on the record-buying public. When I heard Kid A for the first time, my immediate reaction was to ring the record company and say, "OK, very funny, ha ha, now can I have the real Radiohead album, please?". Perhaps, I mused, these musical pieces were out-takes from the album - bizarre, grotesque prequels of the masterpieces to follow. Maybe Radiohead were playing a prank on their critics: release all the unfinished ideas, aborted segments and unusable recordings from the album sessions and watch with glee as the hacks try to make sense of it in a thousand words or so.
Tragically, it's Radiohead's fans who will have the most problem dealing with Kid A. I've been let down many times before by my favourite bands - Led Zeppelin lost me with Presence, Bowie turned me off with Tonight, and REM blew it with Up. I like Radiohead, but it won't pain me to toss Kid A aside and let it disappear completely. Dedicated fans of Radiohead, however, may not find it so easy. They've invested their youth, their money and their emotions in the band, and so they'll try their hardest to love these new "songs". Deep down inside, they might feel slightly dumped on. OK Computer was a marvellous if flawed reflection on human alienation in the digital age, an album which really tried its best to understand. Kid A has none of OK Computer's empathetic qualities - it just hovers there, sending out garbled messages.
So how did Radiohead end up making this hollow reed of a record? In the October issue of Q Magazine, the group gave journalist David Cavanaugh an insight into the album's long, laboured gestation. The interview suggests a band on the verge of breaking up, and a singer teetering on the edge of depression; it also points to a group of musicians who - unable to agree on a direction - have reached a musical dead end.
When work began on Kid A in early 1999, Radiohead were still reeling from the gruelling and soul-destroying world tour which followed the success of OK Computer. Thom Yorke had become completely disillusioned with rock stardom, and had lost interest in melody, guitar and even singing. Suffering from writer's block, Yorke immersed himself in the ambient techno of Autechre and Aphex Twin, and encouraged the rest of Radiohead to join him on his bleepy explorations. The guitar was usurped by an obscure keyboard instrument called an ondes martenot; drumbeats became more synthetic-sounding; and conventional verses and choruses were avoided in favour of dislocated, electronically-treated voices.
The absence of any creative flow really shows. Thom Yorke told Q that his biggest fear while making the album was that perhaps Radiohead weren't really the groundbreaking band they were cracked up to be. Kid A spectacularly fulfils those fears. There's nothing fresh, innovative or exciting here. The ambient instrumentals pale beside the artfully-sculpted minimalism of Eno's Music For Airports. The scary stuff was done much more effectively by Scott Walker on his Tilt album - a record not recommended for the faint-hearted. And the dark electronica has been bettered by a thousand bleep-meisters from Mouse On Mars to Photek to To Rococo Rot. The only thing challenging about Kid A is the very real challenge to your attention span.
In the Q interview, there's a lot of talk about "musical leaps in the dark" and "reaching new frontiers". But what Radiohead - and their fans - need to realise is that rock'n'roll is not the Starship Enterprise. It's not just about going boldly where no one has gone before. Radiohead, in their wrongheaded idea that there is some new, unexplored musical world out there to be discovered, have ended up lost at sea, and all they have found are some old Krautrock castaways.
Kid A is released on Parlophone on September 29th. Radiohead play in a Big Top at Punchestown Racecourse on Friday October 6th, Saturday 7th and Sunday 8th.