OK, internet, you win. I’ll give them a fair hearing.
The question isn’t whether Kid A, Amnesiac and Hail to the Thief are as good as The Bends or OK Computer: it’s almost universally acknowledged that they’re not. The question is whether, by comparison, I have unfairly overlooked them. I confess that I didn’t even buy Amnesiac and Hail to the Thief, and I’ll be hearing them many years after the disappointment of Kid A, for which I paid £17 on its day of release. Is that the problem? That I paid nearly three times what I’d expect to pay for a record these days, only to be disappointed? Would I be this upset if it had been £1?
So, with the prompting of the indignant internet, I’m listening to Kid A nearly 11 years after I bought it. This maybe the fourth time I’ve heard the album – I did try to like it at the time, if only to get my money’s worth.
What’s wrong with Kid A?
Starting with Everything In Its Right Place, it’s clear that something is amiss. The band have established themselves in my mind, at least since The Bends, as a band who marry excellent pop-rock song structures with densely-layered, complex arrangements. The first track is just a simplistic rhythm, minimal instrumentation and a rather weak and unmemorable melody. There just isn’t much to like. Nothing to hook into.
It’s not that I hate minimalism fullstop – the little that I’ve heard of Terry Reilly was intriguing – but that was based around, again, layering things up and bringing them down in the right places. If it’s just one little noise that noodles around not doing very much … there’s just nothing much to like. I have to admit, by halfway through the title track, I’m really struggling here. I am so, so bored. I’ve been listening to the album for eight minutes and I’m having to grit my teeth to force myself to listen to the rest.
The National Anthem at least sounds like a proper song as it starts, and it at least seems to have a bit more going on than anything else – samples and theremin-style noises, and Thom’s voice being used as an instrument. There’s almost enough to like with the psychedelic brass, but it’s structurally very weak – it’s just not a good song. It sounds like a jam from drugged up, bored musicians who are out of ideas.
How To Disappear Completely is a bit more intricate, with its Penderecki-inspired strings and use of the ondes Martenot. I’m still not remotely enjoying it, though – it feels to me like a waste to put all those elements into such a weak song. It could have been great, but it isn’t – the individual moments of the song are good but it’s so insubstantial that it doesn’t add up to a satisfying whole. Compare it to anything from In Rainbows and find it wanting.
Treefingers is what I used to think of when someone said the word “minimalism” – gently undulating ambient pad sounds without rhythm.
Optimistic starts off promisingly, sounding like a proper song – and a proper Radiohead song at that. I’d go as far as to say that it’s a good song, though pretty weak by Radiohead standards. It wouldn’t even make the grade as a filler on OK Computer, but it would pass without comment on Pablo Honey.
My first reaction to In Limbo is that it isn’t completely terrible. Seriously – this is a Radiohead album and we’re happy when a song isn’t terrible? The single, repeating thought I have throughout Kid A is that the songs have a good sound but are structurally weak and forgettable. There’s nothing about any of the songs that makes you think “hey, this is a great song! I want to hear it again!”
Idioteque is the only song on the entire album that is a genuinely great song. It’s the only track that is fit to bear the name Radiohead. It’s mostly composed of two electronic samples from the mid 70s – Mild und Leise by Paul Lansky and Short Piece by Arthur Kreiger. The song is great not just because of the arresting sample motif, but because it has an interesting melody and structure, distinctive and emotionally affecting vocals and knows what a bloody verse and chorus is. It’s so much better than all the other songs it makes you want to tap the band upside the head with the CD case and say “See? You DO know what a decent song sounds like!”
Morning Bell sounds like they’re starting to wake up a bit, but even halfway through the song hasn’t gone anywhere – just some rather nice vocals and rather downbeat repetitive chord progressions. This would be a pisspoor song for Coldplay.
Motion Picture Soundtrack is a nondescript collection of organ drones and harpish noises – shame those interesting effects are again wasted.
With one excellent song and one OK song, Kid A ranks alongside such luminary entries as … Thinking It Over by Liberty X and 7 by Apoptygma Bezerk. Seriously, The Times and Rolling Stone think this was the best album of the noughties? Are they f***ing kidding me?