Patience. The five descending notes that kick off Radiohead's Kid A (Capitol) trail along the keyboard like a wrist twitch accidentally captured on tape. Patience. That figure will soon cohere into a definite rhythmic pattern if you listen calmly enough. And that garbled transmission of Thom Yorke's mewl, puréed into free-floating phonemes? Patience. Hear it resolve into the song title, "Everything in Its Right Place," a promise of order, of meaning. All will be revealed in time, gentle listener. The tempo builds, as does the anticipation, as Yorke's voice coalesces into gradually discernible words that will explain everything. "Yesterday I woke up sucking on lemon"? What? "There are two colors in my head"? Huh? What kind of lyrical payoff is that? As the befuddled protagonists on the Twilight Zone always demanded in their moment of absurdity: Is this some kind of a gag?
Of course not. Radiohead do not permit gags, or frivolity, or even the casual grin. Which is why squinting your brain to decipher Yorke's musings never delivers the same kicks that came from figuring out the words to "Louie Louie," or even "Smells Like Teen Spirit." You know Yorke would no sooner stoop to using dirty words than he would zing you with a one-liner. If you've ever recoiled from Yorke at full keen, when he puffs his petty neuroses into faux Wagnerian grandeur, Kid A will come as something of a relief. Rather than setting his whimper on full and proving what a bono vox he's got, Yorke filters himself into artful incoherence. Alas, that's where our troubles begin.
That incoherence, goes the critical consensus, is what makes Kid A a masterpiece. Radiohead are being "brave"--and stop me if I'm getting this wrong; I always have trouble translating hype into standard English--because they are also being "difficult." Which is a coded way of saying, Don't be too worried if the electronic mucking about here seems weird at first, you enlightened member of the masses. That's just our beloved sullen lads proving they ain't no arena-rock sellouts. Or maybe they're proving that Kid A is good for your brain, like Proust or ginkgo biloba or long division, the hard work of "appreciating" its electronic textures and impenetrable mutters offering its own aesthetic reward. Or, if you don't get with this genuine slice of artistic achievement, you unwashed dimwit, why don'tcha just scamper back to your 'N Sync cassingles and Sabrina the Teenage Witch reruns already?
If, like me, you don't expect art to provide you with a private, hermetic retreat from the cruel world, and if you do expect more of pop culture than a moment of collective solipsism, don't be afraid to trust your instincts here. Let's be plain about it: This is not a good album. Beware of insistent depressives passing off some idiosyncrasy of their brain chemistry as a worldview. Or as an insight into the unchanging human condition. Or as an instructional way to while away your leisure time. Or as all three at once. Especially when the glum hucksters in question are just garden-variety passive-aggressives. Especially when they're British.
Quiet as the news has often been kept, Anglophilia hasn't done American rock 'n' roll fans too many favors since punk went pfft. The last decade bore this fact out in cold statistical clarity: For every career artist like Polly Jean Harvey or one-disc fluke like Th Faith Healers, there were oodles of noodling melodic charlatans hoping to transmute your dollars into pounds. As far as disposable tunelets go, preferring Oasis to, say, Matchbox Twenty is as fatuous as preferring Tony Blair to Bill Clinton. Granted, techno and its hybrid offshoots are another matter. But many an art student with a guitar, besotted by electronic music's sonic ingenuity but suspicious of all that dancing about, thought he could make it better. You know, more serious. You know, more private. You know, Kid A.
Too bad Kid A wasn't released this time last year, as originally threatened--the band just missed out on having three of the most overrated albums of the Nineties, a feat their elfin pal Björk was able to pull off only if you count her remix disc. And you can't say Radiohead didn't, um, progress. If their second album The Bends was just bad, self-absorbed art rock, OK Computer was bad, self-absorbed art rock with a will to power. With guitars interlocking into an intricate exoskeleton to protect Yorke's fragile psyche, OK Computer envisioned the up-to-date recording studio as an embattled bunker for the alienated. Within this cocoon, Yorke presented a vision of the future that mistook the Bowie of Diamond Dogs for John the Revelator. (I think his libretto had something to do with robots taking over the world or something--that domo arigato theme--but I've always had problems following concept albums.)
Kid A is indeed chock full of interesting sounds. But most of us, I hope, ask more of our music than a polite "interesting," ask more than 50 minutes of Zooropa outtakes glossed over with a patina of Mouse on Mars. (German group, lots of funny keyboard squiggles, good for a laugh and then some.) If the stiflingly atmospheric "Treefingers" is ambient, so's my dishwasher. And if the stiff drumming throughout is actually provided by a human being, somebody pour the dude a shot of WD-40 and a lube chaser.
At its heart, Kid A is wracked by a dilemma that has always haunted champions of "progressive rock," from honorable practitioners like Yes and Pink Floyd to frauds like Jethro Tull and Yes: an inability to reconcile their fear of modernity with their love of gadgetry. In order to preserve Old World values (grandeur, the intrinsic worth of the romantic individual), those musicians must dabble with the very electrical gewgaws that (they warn) threaten to impose an impersonal technocratic future of plebian mediocrity upon us all.
The arid results of Kid A pose a pressing question: Could the most dystopian future Yorke fears possibly be any more joyless than this warning of its looming arrival? It never seems to occur to Yorke that human individuality might be best defended by amassing wit and humor and affection and rhythm and all the aspects of character we'd like to preserve. It seemingly hasn't occurred to a majority of the record buyers in this country, either. How often does a critic's band debut at No. 1 in Billboard, as Radiohead did last week? Oh well, I guess every generation gets the Human League it deserves. But when the robots finally do take over, I hope it doesn't fall to this whining twit to make the case for the continuation of my species.
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