‘’Be constructive with your blues’’, Thom Yorke drawls at one point during KID A MNESIA’s exhaustive excursion into the reportedly strained sessions that produced Radiohead’s Kid A (2000) and Amnesiac (2001).
It’s not a bad summary of what Radiohead were up to when these albums were recorded. Exhausted and struggling with mental health issues following the ceaseless promotional circus that followed the entirely deserved praise heaped on 1997’s apocalyptically angsty nu-prog landmark OK Computer, Yorke was reportedly experiencing a bout of writer’s block, as well as being thoroughly disillusioned with the guitar-centricity that Radiohead’s ‘brand’ was built on. Even the sound of his own voice was to be avoided.
Rather than succumb to the self-doubt and bad vibes of the post-success blues, Radiohead opted to transform and mutate into a different kind of organism. Conventionally crafted songs, melody-led presentation and rock band dynamics were out. In their place, Kid A (originally released in October 2000) offered stuttering electronic templates, ruthlessly manipulated vocals, and songs cultivated during, and then edited down from, freeform jam sessions, in the style of Can and Miles Davis around the time of electric fusion evergreens ala In a Silent Way (1969) and Bitches Brew (1970).
With much of Radiohead’s audience was hanging on for more of the ambitious yet unashamedly pretty likes of “No Surprises”, the long-awaited album was initially met with considerable derision. Too far removed from the band’s core aesthetic for the ‘rock’ audience, too openly aligned with the output of cutting-edge electronic music labels such as Warp for the electronic music crowd, Kid A seemed to please no one – but went on to become a huge commercial success regardless.
The reputation of the album has bloomed over the last 20 years. Listening to KID A MNESIA, it’s apparent why Amnesiac (a career best on most other bands’ standards) is considered an afterthought to the album that preceded it. The idea that Radiohead had become acutely allergic to melodies is an exaggeration. The more conventional material (among it such knockouts as the anxiously jangling “Knives Out” and the hauntingly beautiful nightmare ballad “Pyramid Song”) left off Kid A found its home on Amnesiac (released in May 2001), together with ideas that had been covered with more aplomb on Kid A. For evidence, compare the glitchy electronic future-funk of Amnesiac’s strong opener “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box” to its absolutely irresistible, positively levitational stylistic twin “Idioteque” on Kid A, or contrast the jittery Krautrock-influenced mumble-crawl of “Dollars and Cents” with the cacophony of horns (hints of Charles Mingus, maybe?) and unstoppable groove of Kid A’s “The National Anthem”, possibly the funkiest panic attack ever recorded. Amnesiac now sounds like a selection of somewhat disparate tracks of good-to-excellent quality, whereas Kid A – to borrow the title of the uniquely discomforting, ambient mantra that opens it – had everything in its right place.
Kid A now sounds like a flawless masterpiece, a visionary work that relies just as much on sequencing and sustained mood as the actual material for its impact, which appears to only grow in stature over time. Other albums released around the same time (notably Primal Scream’s XTRMNTR and Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot) also dove into electronic textures, cut-up techniques and disfiguring layers of hiss, but Kid A proved peerless in its ability to not only introduce new elements to the band’s toolkit, or pay homage to exciting new influences, but to actually forge an entirely new, equally fertile identity for the band that made it, exemplified by the palette-widening impact of guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s first excursions as a string arranger on tracks like the forlornly floating “How to Disappear Completely” (possibly the most improbably moving example of a rock star moaning about the unbearable weight of success) or the twisted Disney glimmer/gloom of “Motion Picture Soundtrack”.
In the ensuing years, a number of acts (Animal Collective and LCD Soundsystem, to name just two) have sought to map the borderline between traditional songwriting, alternative rock and dance music/electronics, but KID A MNESIA (including Kid A and Amnesiac in full, alongside a disc of rarities and off-cuts, which includes many pleasant discoveries, such as an uncomplicatedly majestic alternative version of “Like Spinning Plates”) suggests that Radiohead got there first, most boldly (in the context of the music that had built their ‘brand’), and arguably with the most significant creative gain.