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9 November 2021

Radiohead’s Kid A Mnesia is the natural soundtrack for an age of fear

Two decades on from their release, the twin albums feel more relevant than ever.

By George Eaton

At the close of the 1990s, Radiohead’s frontman Thom Yorke was engaged in a prolonged rebellion against an oppressive force: himself. Though the band’s third album OK Computer (1997) had been anointed by critics as one of the greatest ever released, Yorke was tired of his voice (“it annoys me how pretty it is”) and tired of guitars.

Rather than feeling liberated by success, he felt trapped. Radiohead, in the words of the Sydney Morning Herald, were deemed “the band most likely to whiten teeth, cure cancer and save us all”. It was an impossible burden.

Meanwhile, the formula that Radiohead had perfected – acoustic ballads, falsetto vocals, melancholic lyrics – had been appropriated by lesser bands to the point of tedium. Without a course correction, Radiohead risked being incarcerated in the stadium rock prison occupied by U2. (“Every time I picked up a guitar I got the horrors,” Yorke later recalled.)

Determined to avert this fate, Yorke bought the entire back catalogue of Warp Records and immersed himself in the avant-electronica of artists such as Aphex Twin and Autechre. After marathon recording sessions that pushed the band close to self-implosion – bassist Colin Greenwood feared “some awful art-rock nonsense just for its own sake” – the result was Kid A (2000), a daringly experimental album that channelled Krautrock, avant-jazz and classical music. Singles and traditional music videos were eschewed in favour of 10-second animated “blips” – prefiguring the era of TikTok and Instagram stories.

On the title track – usually reserved by bands for anthemic singalongs – a vocoder renders Yorke’s vocals unrecognisable. His lyrics, which drew on the cut-up technique deployed by David Bowie for his 1970s Berlin trilogy, were too oblique to be the words of a generational figurehead (“Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon,” Yorke sings on the opening track “Everything In Its Right Place”).

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Such was Radiohead’s eventual productivity during the sessions that they accumulated enough material for a double album – but, unsurprisingly, spurned this rock cliché (think Pink Floyd’s The Wall). Instead, Kid A was followed eight months later by Amnesiac, another full-length LP that affirmed their more left-field direction.

After separating these twins at birth, Radiohead have now reunited them through a new box set Kid A Mnesia. The albums have not – as is usually customary – been remastered. Instead, the main selling point is Kid Amnesiae, a third disc of unreleased tracks, soundscapes and mashups.

The two new songs – “If You Say the Word” and “Follow Me Around” – are most notable for their incongruous simplicity. The first is a keening ballad that resurrects the plaintive guitar and glockenspiel of OK Computer’s “No Surprises” (and which was discarded during the Kid A sessions for being “a little too tasteful and nice”). The second is a stripped-down acoustic song with a country-like twang. They offer glimpses of the guitar band that was submerged beneath Kid A Mnesia’s electronica, and that would surface on Hail to the Thief (2003) and, triumphantly, on In Rainbows (2007).

The remainder of the disc gives free rein to Radiohead’s experimentalism: a fusion of Amnesiac’s oppressive, beat-heavy “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” and “True Love Waits”, an exquisite piano ballad, works better in practice than in theory.

But far more striking than such studio curios is that, two decades after their release, Kid A and Amnesiac feel more relevant than ever. Rather than darkly escapist, they have become the natural soundtrack for an age of fear.

On “The National Anthem”, over a punk-rock bassline and Jonny Greenwood’s woozy ondes Martenot, Yorke sings: “Everyone, everyone is so near, everyone has got the fear, it’s holding on,” words that could have been written for the era of Covid-19 and lockdowns.

“Idioteque” – the band’s anti-dance classic – conjures up scenes of environmental apocalypse (“ice age coming, ice age coming… We’re not scaremongering, this is really happening”) juxtaposed with pleas for BBC-style faux-neutrality (“let me hear both sides”).

“You and Whose Army?”, the most explicitly political song of this era, was written as a darkly comic assault on Blairism (“you and your cronies”). But it acquires a yet more sinister resonance under a Prime Minister who has taken nepotism to new heights. “Optimistic” and “Dollars and Cents”, meanwhile, anticipate a world of tech monopolies (“the big fish eat the little ones”) and hyper-financialisation (“we are the dollars and the cents and the pounds and pence… we’re gonna crack your little souls”).

Though Kid A was intended as a retreat from the burdens of commercial and critical success, it delivered more of both. The album was Radiohead’s first transatlantic chart-topper and was named the greatest LP of the 2000s by Rolling Stone, Pitchfork and the Times.

Such is Kid A’s hegemonic status that few can remember anyone who was against it. But plenty of critics were. The Guardian awarded it two stars, while the now-defunct Melody Maker described it as “look-ma-I-can-suck-my-own-cock whiny old rubbish”. By defying such reviews, Radiohead created a new template for pop experimentalism as Bowie and the Beatles had before.

The final track on the boxset is a strings-only version of Kid A’s “How to Disappear Completely” (Yorke described the original as “the most beautiful thing we ever did”). The song recalls the advice that REM’s frontman Michael Stipe gave Yorke during an on-tour meltdown: “Pull the shutters down and keep saying, ‘I’m not here, this is not happening.’”

Today, in an age of pandemics, climate crisis and surveillance capitalism, these words are newly resonant. As with so much of this disorienting collection, they evoke both the desirability of escape – and its ultimate impossibility.

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