In terms of what was expected from Radiohead after their last record, "Kid A" could be seen as a disappointment. "OK Computer", the masterwork that made them more than a one-hit "Creep" wonder in the U.S. and solidified their already well-established fan base in Europe, made guitars and depression cool again, even as the airwaves were being consumed with a teen-pop firestorm that continues unabated to this day. Despite the domination of saccarine sweet throwaway pop and idiotic jock rap (or perhaps because of it), Radiohead are widely seen as the most important guitar band on the planet: they are the band that will save rock from itself.
From the very first note, however, "Kid A" subverts these expectations and delivers a spare, minimalistic record that sounds more like ambient electronica than cutting edge guitar rock. In fact, the guitars don't show up (in a recognizable form, anyway) until the fourth track on the albumwhich is then immediately followed by a five-minute long abstract piece with no beat and no lyrics.
The album opens in media res; "Everything in Its Right Place" sounds like someone started taping a few seconds after the song actually began. It is a dreamy, subdued piece with lyric fragments that float through the music like flotsam from a recent shipwreck, kept afloat by a series of abrupt chord changes on an organ that sounds like the levels were set a little too high on purpose. This is followed by the title track, "Kid A", a demented 21st century lullaby for the first genetically engineered baby, whose only recognizable lyrics are "Rats and children follow me out of town"Thom Yorke as pied piper for a generation consumed by the Limp-Backstreet-Korn-Spears plague. The third track, "The National Anthem" starts off with a tough, sinewy bass line that adds other instruments and voices to build to a climactic cacophony featuring the devil's own horn section before dissipating into the slow-motion death of "How to Disappear Completely".
After a mid-album pit stop in the form of "Treefingers", a completely abstract electronic piece, Radiohead revs up their engines with "Optimistic", perhaps the most "traditional" Radiohead track on this record; guitars take the forefront in sculpting the soundscape, and Thom Yorke's piercing voice is untouched by the vocal processors that dominate it in so many of the other songs. "In Limbo" returns to the more ambient tone set in the first half of the record, a honey-slow descent down the rabbit hole engulfed by a waterfall of tumbling guitar notes that eventually disintegrate into a low electronic feedback loop.
"Idioteque" (perhaps an answer to U2's ridiculous "Discoteque") is probably my favorite song on this record; guitars that sound like they're being played in an underwater cemetery sliding around the harsh, urgent beat and Yorke's desperate, slurred vocals give the song a coldly menacing texture. The closing loop from "Idioteque", which sounds something like a sentient machine being dismantled, drifts off into "Mourning Bell", a melancholy, pensive number that is probably the most emotionally stirring track on "Kid A". "Motion Picture Soundtrack", the album's closer, starts off with a simple, meandering accordion and Yorke's voice at its most tender before swelling into an orchestral ocean of harps and vocal samples. The track then pauses for a minute of dead silence, before making one last instrumental gasp and lapsing again into two minutes of nothingness.
It will be easy for critics to unleash a backlash of negative responses to this record to make up for their near-universal adoration of "OK Computer", but that would be taking the easy way out. This is not just another failed experiment by a rock band to incorporate electronica into their sound, like U2's horrific "Pop". These songs are genuine Radiohead compositions, full of the same hope and paranoia and regret and despair that characterize so many of their greatest songs. This isn't Radiohead jumping on the electronica bandwagon; this is Radiohead trying to figure out where they belong in the mess that pop music has become. "Kid A" is an experiment that succeeds more often than it fails, but it's clear that even the failures have taught the band something about its identity. "Kid A" might not be the salvation that fans were hoping for three years after the revelation of "OK Computer", but it still brings hope for the future of pop music.