Metamorphosis distorts. In hindsight, the most transformative events only come to seem more unlikely. How could an album like Kid A make its way to the top of the transatlantic charts, in this life or any other? From the vantage of 2021, it seems like a cosmic joke. We can see now, of course, that what appeared to be another tectonic shift in the fabric of the mainstream—hardly ten years after Nevermind—was only a closing of the loop. The grunge explosion of the early ‘90s had revealed itself as another round of corporate enclosure, its network of independent, semi-autonomous labels and scenes broken up and bought off, its disaffection processed and shipped, first as commodity, then as cliché. The entertainment-industrial complex, newly engorged by the Telecom Act of 1996 and the ascendant deregulatory regime, had proven adept at absorbing its opposite, detourning the ‘alternative’ signifiers of the counter-culture into yet another brand in its megacultural portfolio.
Radiohead had sensed this shift in real time. You can see it afflicting Thom Yorke like an allergy of the soul in Grant Gee’s Meeting People Is Easy (1998). He looks exhausted and fragile, wandering from terminal to television station, searching for a stage exit in vain. The band’s disillusionment is palpable in the intermittent efforts to follow up OK Computer: the tap of stadium-sized melancholy has turned off, the golden goose would prefer not to lay.
Instead, between January 1999 and April 2000, Radiohead stripped their sound to its foundations, and then shifted those foundations altogether. Setting their anthemic, guitar-driven roots in large part aside, the band immersed itself in the abrasive tonalities and complex rhythms that spanned avant-gardes, from kosmische to free jazz, ambient to lately insurgent electronica. The result was anti-commercial music for a mass audience, perhaps the last of its kind, a gesture of precision-guided iconoclasm that caught fans and critics unawares with its effortless articulation of what many (then, as now) lacked the vocabulary to express: the profound and unrelenting anxiety of our tumultuous young century.
The retrospective box set Kid A Mnesia released last month reunites the two albums recorded during these sessions, Kid A (2000) and Amnesiac (2001), along with a cassette of B-sides and a disc of alternates and outtakes. For the faithful, it’s a long-awaited valediction of the band’s most creative and far-reaching period. For the uninitiated, it also offers a perfect place to start. After October 2000, the band was never the same again. Kid A Mnesia is the sound of the band we talk about when we talk about Radiohead being born.
From its first funereal chords, it was a birth that was hard to tell from decomposition. In 2021, anxiety is an endemic, recurring feature of everyday life, even if our popular music has nothing to say about it. But at the turn of the millennium, global capital’s end-of-history façade was only just beginning to produce discernible cracks. You could see it in the acts of terrorism, seemingly random, mounting across the globe; in the Baudrilliardian stage-management of the Kosovo War; in the vaporware panic of the Y2K Bug. Maybe the last thing you hear over the emergency broadcast system is “Everything In Its Right Place.”
It was anxiety, too, shuddering beneath the psychotic tantrum of Woodstock ’99, and the militant refusal of the Battle of Seattle, where protesters flooded downtown streets to grind a ministerial of the World Trade Organization to a halt. A few days later, Naomi Klein’s No Logo arrived as a manifesto for those seeking an offramp from the superhighway of corporate accelerationism that seemed to be encircling the planet at a dizzying pace. Yorke was one of them. The glittering, alien music that emerged from this period is a two-way mirror of crises both global and personal. His mantra of self-abnegation, “How to Disappear Completely,” shares its title with a self-published samizdat on extracting oneself from the global surveillance grid. When Radiohead ventured to tour their unreleased material in the summer of 2000, they did so in a custom-built tent scrubbed of insignia, an anti-corporate statement and an expression of Yorke’s own urge to go personally incognito in the same blow.
The most overt musical erasure from this period is, of course, the shift towards electronics, which saw the frequent removal of large sections of the band from the recording process, and drove their previously baroque song structures into fractured loops and long, haunted strands. Yorke’s immersion in the Warp Records catalog, and Jonny Greenwood in the sounds of the Darmstadt School, undoubtedly set this sonic expansion’s terms. Songs don’t seem to begin or end as much as approach and recede, the strangest of them still off playing somewhere too remote to hear.
But the dominance of electronics over the Kid A Mnesia discourse can have the paradoxical effect of overemphasizing the shift as well as downplaying it. In fact, Radiohead had been fortifying their sound with electronic flourishes since Nigel Godrich joined as producer in 1994. Hybrid dance-rock on the Factory Records model had been entrenched in UK music culture since the early ‘80s. But, as the adoptive progeny of the rigorously genre-siloed US music scene, Radiohead’s music was anathema to the dance floor. Their own intuitive milieu derived—by way of American college radio—from that other experiential paradigm of rock ‘n roll: the automobile. Aggressive, unselfconsciously macho electric guitar music practically evolved in tandem with car culture (think: “Rocket 88”), and Yorke’s early songs placed those same emotions in tension with lyrics about the dread and uncanny of high-speed travel. But with the arrival of explicitly digital sounds into its musical foreground, Radiohead turned its attention to the machinery of another kind of cockpit. Along with contemporaries like Portishead, Tortoise, and Stereolab, on Kid A Mnesia, we can hear the band reaching beyond the binary of stationary (dance) and forward (driving) motions. Blending electronics with rock melodies and the rhythms of avant-jazz, these bands were reaching half-consciously for an account of the third, still-undefined space of the internet itself. Everything all of the time… Today, the medium-cool Paul Lansky sample pulsing across “Idioteque” is as synonymous with those tense, thrilling early days of internet access as the tone of a dial-up modem, or Brian Eno’s overture to Windows 95. If the unfortunately coined Intelligent Dance Music of Boards of Canada and Aphex Twin was advertised for listening in repose, the new sound Radiohead had forged was a soundtrack for the sudden, slow-fast collision of infinite information with the human mind.
Something else was happening on that summer tour. Songs the band had premiered in Barcelona were well known to the audience by the time they reached Tel Aviv. A new peer-to-peer file sharing service called Napster had opened an aquifer beneath the bedrock of the mainstream, serving as a distribution point not just for live bootlegs but for contraband itself—leaks of coveted entertainment-industrial IP. While the industry made a sock-puppet of Metallica from which to volley their ultimately fatal lawsuit, Radiohead made no complaint—even when Kid A leaked there in its entirety. The truce was a first signal of the band’s intention to claim the internet as its own laboratory for a new artistic and economic relationship with its audience, one that now includes experimental releases through BitTorrent and Bandcamp, as well as In Rainbows’ legendary 2007 pay-what-you-want debut and, most recently, the virtual exhibition room where users can experiences archival artwork and snatches of music not found on the Kid A Mnesia box set.
Critically speaking, the set is also an opportunity to correct an imbalance in praise between the two albums of its focus. While Kid A, with its self-consciously confrontational design, receives the benefit of being first through the wall, in 2021, the obliqueness of its follow-up captures, perhaps more essentially, our own nonlinear times. It is Amnesiac, with its haywire rhythms and creeping melodies—with its foggy, unassuming quiet—that seems most obviously to predict a whole contemporary array of metabolic musics, from vaporwave to ambient jazz, as well as the polymorphous context in which they now thrive. It is Amnesiac that scores, with Pynchonean circuitry, the tumble-down end of Pax Americana, and the smoke-like infiltration of all-seeing eyes. But someone’s listening in… And it is, of course, Amnesiac that has “Pyramid Song,” one of the twenty-first century’s most hauntingly beautiful pieces of music, a rocky island where—once shipwrecked—you can never quite return from again.
When it comes to retrospectives, the semblance of completism will inevitably irritate those areas where incompleteness prevails. Evidence of the depth of quality in the Kid A Mnesia sessions has long been apparent from its B-sides, many of whom are as strong as their LP counterparts. This makes the cassette’s exclusion of “Worrywort”—possibly the finest of these tracks—not so much an offense as a puzzle. More glaring is the omission of I Might Be Wrong, the live album recorded during this era. Still inexplicably Radiohead’s sole concert release, it’s a missed opportunity for the band (who, in other contexts, has embraced its robust performance archive) to attempt an audio document that approximates their sublime stage show.
But the real fruits of Kid A Mnesia are—as they were on the OKNOTOK (2017) retrospective—the unreleased tracks, sequenced among a phantom tissue of instrumentals and alternate versions that bridge the two albums like hemispheres of the same brain. That the arch-perfectionists from Oxfordshire can, at long last, bring this wandering material to rest, is a sign of a mellowing that comes with maturity, and assurance in their own achievements. But the result is at once more and less than its billing, an elegant but fleeting vehicle that might have been enhanced by further integration of the B-side tracks. Even more so than “True Love Waits” (which, here borrowing the dubby synths of “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors,” receives its third official release), these two new songs seem to float in Kid A Mnesia’s respective before and after. Take away the slight, menacing vocoder sheen (they already excised a thinly-veiled shot at Tony Blair) and “Follow Me Around” becomes another handy ballad of the early, surging guitar days. With its slinking rhythm and choral refrain, “If You Say the Word” fits best among the grandeur of their latest album, A Moon Shaped Pool (2016). Nested within a reflection on their past, Kid A Mnesia is also a statement about Radiohead’s future—as stewards of their back catalog, and curators of their own substantial legacy.
Our collective future seems to hold more anxiety in store, not less. The crises Radiohead gave their slant names to here—cloud cuckoo land, trap door, ice age—have folded, like the movements and cultures that opposed them, into a multifarious and shifting complex. The forces that were then, only just beginning to dissolve the mainstream, have built a weird and dangerous new spectacle in its place. Enclosure, in music and everywhere else, is on the rise again, under a new set of names: Spotify, Web3, the Metaverse. While the band themselves have settled into a posture of continuum rather than rupture, they have not relinquished their vanguard status. Yorke and Greenwood, in particular, continue to cultivate influences across media, and with their latest project—the Smile—they seem to be reaching once again for the sonic horizons they first made contact with twenty years ago. As for Kid A Mnesia, its music remains as powerfully restless and openly revolutionary as ever, possibly more. The utopias we turn to in times of crises are stored, more often than not, in works of art. Kid A Mnesia is a powerful reminder of the metamorphosis still to come, the one waiting for us in our notebooks and in our hard drives, until the time comes to steal the future once again. | r meehan
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