“I had never even seen a shooting star before. 25 years of rotations, passes through comets' paths, and travel, and to my memory I had never witnessed burning debris scratch across the night sky.”
I didn't write those words—those are the opening lines to Brent DiCrescenzo's infamous Pitchfork review of Kid A, lines that became a memetic part of my college friendships far before I ever got into Radiohead. The air of pretension oozing from that piece was enough to draw me into reading the full review, and boy, did it not disappoint. Allusions to CS Lewis, comparisons to a stillbirth, alien abductions—it’s impossible to describe this review without accidentally impersonating Bill Hader’s Stefon. But for all my love of the piece, I had never even heard a Radiohead album before. 20 years of rotations, passes through comets’ paths, and travel, and to my knowledge I had never felt those beautiful bleep bloops scratch across my eardrums. So I set out to change that.
My sophomore year of college, I gave myself the task of listening to Radiohead’s entire discography in sections—spend two days apiece listening to nothing but a single album, with the hopes that at the end of the two weeks I would have gained a proper appreciation (read: Stockholm Syndrome’d myself) for the band’s work. I’d heard songs of theirs here and there: I knew the hits, I’d fallen in love with “Bodysnatchers” way back in 2007, I’d even become obsessed with a great Jay-Z/Radiohead mashup album (named Jaydiohead, naturally). It all went so swimmingly at first—even in the weeds of their first album Pablo Honey, I liked what I was hearing. I recognized something special in The Bends, even being years divorced from the context in which it would’ve been considered a legendary alt-rock album. Getting to OK Computer on those fifth and sixth days solidified it for me—if this was the album that kicked off the band’s status as all-time greats, then the way it made me feel was enough for me to recognize them as personal favorites. I hadn’t even gotten into the meat and potatoes of their work yet! But OK Computer was as perfect a collection of 12 tracks as I had ever heard, and I couldn’t imagine that the bridge between OK Computer and In Rainbows would have anything to put me off of their work.
Then I got to Kid A. Good grief.
…Is this it? The astounding, unparalleled Radiohead album that changed the musical landscape and claimed a spot in the Mount Rushmore of all-time indie records? There must be some mistake. Maybe I’ve got the wrong version of the album. Maybe Spotify started bugging out and switched an incredible, wall-thumping rock record with whatever experimental Brian Eno album they accidentally labeled as “Treefingers.” Gotta give kudos to whatever upstart jazz trio behind “Morning Bell” managed to con Spotify into uploading their work as a Radiohead album, though.
…Is this it?! For real?? With the title track and everything??? Was there such a dearth of music in 2000 that Thom Yorke drunkenly warbling over a discarded Postal Service demo was really worth a fucking Grammy?! All the incredible instrumentation is gone, replaced with weird GarageBand bells and lyrics from a terrible poetry generator. “Yesterday I woke up sucking on lemon?” Christ. We were all so relaxed when Y2K didn’t happen that this passed for “best of the year,” I guess.
…Is this it? I’m missing something. There’s a meaning behind this music that I’m not savvy to. It does seem like there’s a largely metaphorical story of some sort here that everyone’s connecting to. Maybe I’m just not old enough to get it? Maybe “Idioteque” just speaks to a part of life that I haven’t yet experienced, where one goes through a symbolic “ice age” that is coming, where we are meant to…take the money and run? Ugh. Fuck. I don’t know what any of these goddamn bleeps and bloops mean.
This… is it. Radiohead traded in their absolutely electric guitar work and powerful anthemic vocals for…this. I spent a week hoping they’d transcend their reputation as a sad boy quintet, but Kid A is the very album that solidifies it. Can I even finish this two-day experiment when I know what lies on the horizon? How many times can I listen to variations of “In Limbo” without lying down for a year, ready to accept any and all bedsores? It’s a wildly inaccessible album, written by and for a version of Radiohead that I don’t recognize. The lyrics are purposefully abstruse, the music feels like an attempt to shed the goodwill of their most recent success in favor of a strangely-timed, turn of the millennium embrace of the digital lifestyle. Why? Why have they done this to themselves? And more importantly, why have they done this to me?
I was 20 when I first listened to Kid A in full, and it was an extremely jarring, alienating experience. It took about three listens for me to even accept that I could enjoy any of the tracks on the album, and by that point I felt like I’d been brainwashed, letting the fumes of a collegiate laundry room bleed into my nostrils while I convinced myself that there was a true artistry in the abstract nature of “Morning Bell” that I just wasn’t savvy to.
To this day I’m convinced that the only parts of Kid A I truly love are the parts that lean more into the accessible, radio-friendly nature of Radiohead. “Optimistic” follows enough of a standard song structure for my brain to understand it. “The National Anthem” builds to a climactic frenzy in such a way that my heart feels energized. Even “How To Disappear Completely”—as bleak and dismal as it is—feels simple enough that it’s not alienating to me. But at the time that I’d done this two-day listening experiment, that wasn’t enough for me. I spent hours writing out (now-deleted) tweets on how frustrating it was to know that Kid A was the most beloved album in the Radiohead oeuvre when it was so far the one I liked the least. (Yeah, even more than Pablo Honey! It was that strange to me!) But instead of extending the period of time for me to truly understand it, I just moved on. And moving on to Amnesiac felt like a slap in the face. All of the inaccessibility and ambient instrumentation was multiplied exponentially. I didn’t have the energy to be frustrated again though, so I took the two days in stride and was happy to be in the loving arms of Hail To The Thief when it came along. But I never really embraced Kid A like I should have.
In fact, I don’t know that I ever got a chance to reckon with my feelings towards Kid A until I decided to write this piece. I initially asked RS 500 editor Brad Efford to write some words on OK Computer, only to find that it had already been claimed. I told him I’d write about Kid A instead because I was insistent that I had to write something in tribute to the band, as they’d become such a strong part of my life. So I did the two-day experiment again with just Kid A, and it all felt so different.
I still look at that Pitchfork review and laugh at how perplexing an abstract it is, but in a lot of ways I also connect with it. The way it’s written is the exact way Kid A feels, and the metaphors DiCrescenzo uses have become similar to the visuals my mind connects to it. My initial reactions to the album will always be there, grandfathered in as a gut feeling of how I “really” feel about it, but I still see a lot of beauty and value in it that I wouldn’t have possibly seen while trying to brute force my way into becoming a Radiohead fan. There’s a lot of indescribable, ethereal magic in the album that reminds me of how I felt finally seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey on the big screen: the foremost feeling was a resounding “what the fuck does this mean,” but the thought overwhelmed me so much that I forgot to take in the beauty in every frame (or note). Radiohead made a piece of work that discards all of the reputation their audience demanded of them in favor of all the reputation they wanted to have, and they still managed to make something strong, emotional, completely unique, and absolutely oozing with skill. Trying to embrace the album like any other piece of music is a fool’s errand, because it’s not like anything else. It’s not a story, or a collection of sounds they just liked—it’s an experimental opera of sorts where the inaccessibility is part of the experience.
Kid A isn’t my shooting star (In Rainbows holds that honor for me). It forms a series of wondrous constellations in that same night sky that I could have easily missed if I’d placed so much importance on finding the comet’s trail that had been promised to me, but that isn’t the vision I needed. That isn't the way I needed to see the album. This is it.