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24 February 2015updated 08 Oct 2020 9:40am

Fifteen years on, Radiohead’s Kid A is the best evocation of the failures of New Labour

Fifteen years after Kid A, Max Harris looks back on a record that serves as a searing critique of the New Labour years

By Max Harris

Radiohead’s Kid A was released 15 years ago.  Last weekend, a friend and I returned home from dinner and decided to revisit the album.  We did something that feels like a dying practice in our age of Spotify and YouTube – listening to the album from start to finish – in the darkness of an old study. 

Thom Yorke, the frontman of the Oxford-based five-piece, has often resisted explicit political interpretations of Radiohead’s music.  And yet it is remarkable how much Kid A seems to capture the spirit of the early years of New Labour.  And the words and themes of the album still resonate today, highlighting the enduring legacies of that era which Labour today has to face up to as we move closer to this year’s general election.

‘The National Anthem’ is the album’s third track, a song with a bass line that snarls beneath a crashing drum beat and a cacophony of howling synths.  In it Yorke sings about the atomisation of post-Thatcher British society – and the latent sense of anxiety which allowed the Blair government to respond to the 7/7 tragedy with counter-terrorism measures crippling civil liberties.  “Everyone around here…”, Yorke stammers, “everyone is so… near.”  And yet, “every one has got fear” and is just “holding on”.  This is all that binds the nation together, Yorke tells us – a shared sense of solitude even while we’re surrounded by people.  This is the anthem for what George Monbiot has recently described as our “age of loneliness”.

‘The National Anthem’ comes after ‘Everything in its Right Place’ and the title track, both of which seem to express a longing for a society better than the one we have.  Both tracks involve garbled voices striving to be heard.  “What was that you tried to say?” Yorke asks in the opening track.  And on the title tune a slightly mechanised version of Yorke’s voice mumbles over what sounds like ethereal gamelan-like gongs, in words that we can’t quite make out. 

In ‘How to Disappear Completely’, which follows directly on from ‘The National Anthem’, there is a sense of denial – an attempt to come to terms, perhaps, with a Blair government failing to satisfy the feeling of hope that preceded its coming to power. “That there – it’s not me,” Yorke whispers over a haunting acoustic guitar.  “I’m not here,” he sings, “this isn’t happening.”

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In ‘Idioteque’, a beautiful four-chord synth progression plays over the top of a rasping drum beat while Yorke speaks about impending catastrophe.  It’s hard not to see the song, however anachronistic this may be, as a modern elegy for how we all have responded to climate change – without sufficient urgency or a sense of the gravity of the problem.  “Ice Age coming, Ice Age coming,” Yorke cries in a panic.  “[But] let me hear both sides, let me hear both sides.”  He goes on: “we’re not scare-mongering/This is really happening.”

Later in the album, there’s more on the social dysfunction of Blair-era Britain in ‘Morning Bell’ (we might have to “cut the kids in half”) and the final track, ‘Motion Picture Soundtrack’, is a funereal organ piece overlaid with a fluttering, fantastical harp.  But if there is death in that final track, whose death is it? It seems likely that Yorke is mourning a friend or acquaintance (“I will see you – in the next life”).  ‘Motion Picture Soundtrack’ could now also be heard, however, as a song about the end of faith in New Labour (even if it was written earlier, before their election). 

Maybe these reflections are too harsh on New Labour – a touch overblown.  But what Radiohead offers in Kid A, ultimately, is a pointed perspective on the time at the turn of the millennium.  And much of what it said in the album, dark as it may be, seems right – about both New Labour and our world 15 years on.  We’re still inert in our response to climate change.  A sense of social malaise, against the backdrop of inequality, remains with us.   And the feelings that Yorke alludes to – of not being listened to, loneliness, denial, and panic – continue to be dominant responses to the problems of our time.

Isn’t this also reading a bit much into Kid A’s lyrics – making the album political when it’s sometimes just personal, and tying the general disenchantment of the album tenuously to New Labour? The problem with this objection is that Radiohead’s work has often been overtly political.  The title of the band’s later album, Hail to the Thief, is an explicit reference to George W. Bush and the theft of the 2000 US election.  And so it’s unlikely that the New Labour years did not feed into the creative process of making Kid A, as is most strongly suggested by the demonic image of Tony Blair you can find in the album art.

More importantly, one of the features of good music is that it makes room for multiple possible meanings like these to be threaded out of a recording, in the way that isn’t possible with much linear non-fiction.    Kid A reminds us, in the end, of what music can offer to social and political struggle.  Artists like Radiohead can be foretellers of emerging trends – creative canaries in our collective mine.  And sometimes, just sometimes, when they get it right – as with Radiohead and Kid A – they can capture the spirit of the times with simultaneous crispness, subtlety, emotion, and beauty. 

Max Harris is a fellow at All Souls College, Oxford. He tweets as @mdnharris.

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