You're Radiohead. You've released one of the best albums of the 1990s, "OK Computer." It's a powerful, visionary work that deftly combines old-school guitar rock, modern electronica and ambitious song arrangements, evoking the memory of such innovative albums as the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band" and Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon." It tops many year-end best-album lists and establishes Radiohead as the kingpin of British rock.
So how do you follow that kind of an achievement? If you're Radiohead, you radically reinvent your sound and re-emerge with a CD, "Kid A," that has no obvious radio singles and could very well confuse -- and even alienate -- a large part of your audience.
"By the end of having toured on "OK Computer" and such, I think we felt like that was very much the end of the first phase for us as a band, really," says drummer Phil Selway, explaining the band's mind-set entering into the "Kid A" project. "In some ways it was still the same band by the end of "OK Computer" as it started 14 years before that. I think we felt that we'd done pretty much everything we could do with the setup as it was at that point. So I think we went in with the attitude that we had to find new approaches, new ways of working together, trying to break down the rigid definitions of what everybody did within the band. I think [singer] Thom [Yorke] coined the phrase that we split the band up and reformed it with the same people. I think that's a very good way of putting that, actually."
In truth, "Kid A" is a CD that shows more differences than similarities to the previous Radiohead albums, "Pablo Honey" (1993), "The Bends" (1995) and "OK Computer" (1997). For one thing, where Radiohead has predominantly been a guitar band on past CDs, "Kid A" is based mostly around keyboards. Where previous songs had their share of rocking tempos and jagged guitar riffs, "Kid A" is largely ambient in tone. Indeed, the sound of "Kid A" is defined by songs like "Everything in Its Right Place" or "How to Disappear Completely" that feature gentle washes of keyboards and electronic textures. Only on tunes like "The National Anthem," with its edgy bass line, and "Optimistic," with its angular guitar riffs, does Radiohead immediately evoke the crunch of past records.
Radiohead had begun to shift away from standard verse-chorus organizations, but "Kid A" is even more free-form, to the point where expected devices, such as choruses, bridges and hooks, at times seem displaced -- and in some songs even nonexistent. "Treefinger" and "Kid A," in fact, float along seemingly without any beginning, middle or end.
Selway, however, sees things somewhat differently.
"I disagree with [the idea] there aren't the hooks and there aren't the choruses," he says. "I mean, there are choruses in something like ‘Optimistic,' ‘How to Completely Disappear,' ‘Morning Bell' even. There are identifiable structures there. But the verse-chorus, middle-eight take on writing a song, that isn't the be-all, end-all in songwriting."
He admits that it's difficult at first to "find the obvious landmarks" in the melodies. "Once you settle into the record," Selway says, "you do find those landmarks and you do find the melodies and you do see where the hooks are. And in some ways, even though the arrangements haven't been as rigidly structured as they have been in the past, they are structured within what we do, even if it just comes about from editing something down until it actually makes sense as a track."
"Kid A" grows more approachable, sensible and addictive with repeated listenings. But that might not be good for CD sales in an era where radio is rigidly formatted and songs need to deliver instant gratification to gain airplay. It's hard to imagine any songs on "Kid A" grabbing listeners with the immediacy of hits like "Paranoid Android" (from "OK Computer") or "Creep" (from "Pablo Honey").
So it's true that the patient listener will be rewarded by the subtle charms and daring adventures of "Kid A." But the bottom line for any record is whether it's enjoyable. In the case of "Kid A," Radiohead has created an album that's easy to respect and admire, but more difficult to like than their previous CDs.