Radiohead’s fourth album, Kid A, can be called many things, but pleasant is not one of them. As the most experimental of the band’s work at the time of its release, the record marks the point when Radiohead ascended from a post-grunge zeitgeist to a transcendent, persisting voice for multiple generations of listeners.
Of course, this reality couldn’t have been apparent upon Kid A’s arrival in 2000. That’s because it’s neither the catchiest or the most obviously melodious of its company, particularly predecessor OK Computer. It is a withholding tsunami of electronic spasms interwoven with piercing midrange guitar licks; a journey by canoe of crystalline caves and pulsating stars and depraved lonely voices set to impatient, choppy drums. In the case of tracks like “The National Anthem” and “Motion Picture Soundtrack,” all these sonic textures overlay grand orchestral compositions that explode cathartically outward.
I’ve been unable to stay away from Kid A this week. Indeed, there is something about the clotting of snow and slush on the roads, that pricking feeling of cold air whooshing into one’s lungs that demands the detached wisdom of the album. Even from its first few notes, in that bizarrely shape-shifting synth riff which opens “Everything In Its Right Place,” the album establishes its emotional center, or rather its lack thereof. Chords oscillate between hope and dismay with discomorting frequency. This refusal to settle on any dimension of sensory clarity is everywhere in Kid A — that odd verse of “In Limbo” that seems to skip a beat by the time it repeats itself, the swingy outro of “Optimistic,” those creepy strings that haunt the periphery of “How to Disappear Completely.”
Kid A is so multi-faceted that its modest chaos can be off-putting. But it also has an addictive quality; once you’re amid the madness, you’re unlikely to leave it without sufficient exploration. And the best part about Kid A is how completely it rewards exploration of itself. Most obviously, the final track, “Untitled,” provides an incomplete but enriching resolution to the album’s anxieties over loneliness and broken communication. The strange combination of electronic strings and synths release in a single, awesome chord that envisions disintegration and peace as one and the same.
But the album’s draw emerges from beyond simply a single listen. Underneath its facade of isolation and doubt, Kid A tucks in moments of warmth, the briefest of escapes into infectious faith. See the second half of “Motion Picture Soundtrack,” when the song becomes overcome with the plucking of multiple harps, back and forth across the final chorus or that strange baby’s cry in the closing seconds of the title track. Kid A is an album that heightens the feeling of walking through Ann Arbor’s snowy streets. But it alleviates its own demons with morsels of happiness that sustain their way through the entire record.
I likely won’t stop listening to Kid A in the following months. The ability for an album to be reassuring without being trite is exceedingly rare for someone as cynical as I am. It is an album that keeps on giving, even and especially when its cutting bleakness is most easily accessible. While Kid A is not blindingly radiant enough to be called a beacon, it is certainly akin to a burst of warmth, a sip of coffee, a random reflecting light on the bluish-white of a snowbank.