I wrote a piece a while ago about Mulholland Drive, in which I stated that the idea of “favourites” is largely ephemeral, that it is difficult to fully decide a favourite book or album because it is dependent on so many circumstances. While that is true, if I absolutely had to choose one Desert Island Disc, one record that I would listen to above all others, it is one that is celebrating its 15 year anniversary this month.
An album that continues to divide opinion, Kid A inspires fevered devotion amongst its advocates, and vehement dislike, even anger, amongst its detractors. Upon release, it was described by Mark Beaumont as “tubby, ostentatious, self-congratulatory, look-ma-I-can-suck-my-own-cock whiny old rubbish”, while in a 10/10 review Pitchfork compared it to the experience of seeing a shooting star, and wrote that “it’s clear that Radiohead must be the greatest band alive, if not the best since you know who.” 15 years on, this dichotomy persists, some seeing the album as unlistenable, a fatal experimental misstep for Radiohead, while others deem it the defining masterpiece of its time, if not all time.
It is no secret that I possess an almost unhealthy love of Radiohead (it is the first thing many learn about me), and in their extraordinary, unparalleled canon of relentless genius, for me Kid A stands above the rest. I have written before about The Bends, and it is testament to Radiohead that one of the greatest albums of all time is arguably only my 3rd, 4th, or even 5th, favourite of theirs. Above The Bends, above the criminally underrated Amnesiac, above In Rainbows, even above OK Computer, stands Kid A.
I first heard the album a few years after its release. The 12-13 year old me, like so many, consigned it to the dustbin. Holding a fanatical love of The Bends and OK Computer, this didn’t make sense to me. The Guardian wrote that “The first time you hear Kid A …you’ll probably scratch your head and think, huh? What are they on about? For starters, why are the guitars only on three songs? What’s with all the muted electronic hums, pulses and tones? And why is Thom Yorke’s voice completely indistinguishable for most of the time?” and this was my experience. What was this? It was unintelligible, and I regretfully put it to one side. It was only 2 or 3 years later that I picked it up again, and suddenly there were elements of it that appealed. Sure, it wasn’t OK Computer, but it wasn’t the travesty that I had labelled it. Then, after 8, 9, 10, 11 listens, it all made sense. My adoration of the album continues to grow, I love it now more than I did even a year ago, every listen elevates its status higher and higher.
What is often overlooked in the talk of its experimentation, its departure from guitars, and its significance to modern music, is that it is a phenomenally beautiful record. It is not beautiful in an instantly noticeable way, it takes patience to appreciate, but when it clicks it is extraordinary. It is not experimentation for the sake of it, nor is it in any way pretentious or pompous. It has been dismissed by many on two differing accounts: certain people say that it is opaque, self-important rubbish, while others actually suggest that it does not go far enough; I have read that it is “art rock for people that don’t like art rock”. This is to wildly miss the point. People do not love Kid A because they think it is weird or “experimental”, people love it because it is astonishingly gorgeous. Its ideas aren’t all ground-breaking; components of it derive from Can, from Kraftwerk, from Aphex Twin, from Talk Talk, from Miles Davis, from Charles Mingus. No music is devoid of influence, and to suggest that Kid A is weaker for it is wholly misguided. But Radiohead, in my humble opinion of course, do it better than anyone. Certainly, Can were experimenting with Tago Mago and Ege Bamyasi 25-30 years before Kid A, but I don’t believe they ever wrote anything as beautiful as How to Disappear Completely, anything as heart-stopping as Motion Picture Soundtrack. I am a huge fan of Can, indeed a huge fan of all of the artists listed, but I don’t believe that any of them had a moment as perfect as Kid A, an album where all of their ideas coalesced to make a single record of such unending majesty.
Approaching Kid A as a difficult, experimental piece is wrong. That is not where its genius lies, its genius lies in the masterful songwriting that underpins the whole album. Everything in its Right Place, Kid A, The National Anthem, Optimistic, Idioteque, Morning Bell, Motion Picture Soundtrack – each mini-masterpieces. The album’s greatest achievement, however, is How to Disappear Completely. If my desert island was only able to accommodate one song, it would be this. I have never heard anything so beautiful. Inspired by advice given to Thom Yorke by Michael Stipe on how to deal with depression, How to Disappear Completely is 6 minutes of aural paradise. Right from the first second to the last, it is simultaneously striking, heart-breaking, uplifting, joyful, sorrowful – it is just everything that is wonderful about music. The moment that Yorke’s voice soars over the key change is possibly my single favourite moment in any song.
It is impossible to do justice to the album, it needs to be listened to, and listened to, and listened to. As with any great art, it cannot be fully appreciated in one or two attempts. If you listen to Kid A for the first time, you are likely to be perplexed, and deem me an idiot for raving about it. I ask that you listen to it again, and again, and again. If after 10-15 listens your opinion does not change, then fair enough, we all have different tastes after all, but I urge you to try. It is not an album that you will get to grips with if you have it on in the background while talking or doing other things; it requires, and deserves, full attention, from beginning to end. 15 years on, it sounds better than ever.