Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Love Affair With Radiohead: Part 4 - Kid A

One of the things that is most important for me as music fan, and in particular, a fan of a certain artist or band, is the idea that an artist can vary his approaches and sounds in the music that he produces.  Over the years I’ve found myself engaged by a band for one reason or another but that I eventually lose interest in that band with subsequent albums they’ve put out because at the end of the day, each album becomes a slight variation of the previous one.  I’ve heard others praise artists for this because, according to them, the band in question has never compromised their integrity or goals or whatever and has always stayed true to who they are and their particular genre.   While I understand this point of view, I highly disagree with it.  For the artist that continually puts out slightly different variations on what was done before might be very good at what they’re doing, they also kind of serve as a one trick pony and fail to reach the levels of those artists that can truly branch out and create a completely different sound than what they are accustomed to.  I do not mean to knock any artist that does what they do very well, but I think there is something to be said for the artist that never settles for what was done in the past and what is known to be popular, for it is in this type of decision that history is made.

Bob Dylan made plenty of enemies when he first went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965,  Miles Davis perplexed his solid jazz fan base when he went towards the ways of fusion with Bitches Brew, and the Beatles took the masses by surprise when they released Sgt. Pepper which was a drastic turn from their previous work.  It is extremely rare when an artist just up and completely reverses course on all the work previously released and usually such an act is met with uncertainty, skepticism, and oftentimes, scorn.  Radiohead is no exception to this event and for them, their decision nearly divided their audience in half.

Kid A was released in the fall of 2000, several years after OK Computer, and it also represents the first album the band released that I was genuinely excited about before its release.  By this time in my life, I had moved to California to begin a year long volunteer program called the Jesuit Volunteer Corps.  Despite the fact that I had agreed to “live simply” as one of the tenets of the program required, I never deviated from my fascination and excitement with music.  In fact, it may have reached its apex.  I remember reading about the album before its release and that it essentially dropped all guitar sounds from its makeup in favor of an electronic and “liquid” sound that, according to “Rolling Stone” was ‘weird, and wonderful’.  I wanted to buy the album immediately, but I had little to no disposable income to speak of and I went weeks without hearing or buying it.  However, shortly after its release, I was able to listen to it in one of the most memorable musical experiences of my life, courtesy of a friend, a walkman, and a beautiful sunset.

At one point during my volunteer experience in California, I found myself at a retreat in the hills and woods of Northern California with scores of friends from the same program.  I had gotten to know several of them and had realized that many of them had similar musical tastes that I had.  It was during this weekend that I happened upon my friend Odioka who had recently purchased a copy of Kid A, on tape nonetheless, and was toting it around with him for the weekend.  One evening, I asked him if I could borrow it and he graciously allowed me to.  I retrieved my walkman, located a secluded spot on top of a hill after dinner and sat there by myself to play the tape as the sun set over the horizon.  It was one of the most beautiful music listening experiences of my life.  And I was confused as hell.  What was this?

I knew I wasn’t going to get any guitars or structure that I was used to, but that still didn’t prepare me for what I heard.  In fact, the only songs I remember truly enjoying the first time I heard them were “How to Disappear Completely” and “Optimistic”, probably because they had more guitar parts than any other track on the album, rendering them more familiar.  I freely admit that I was not a huge fan of this album the first few times I heard it.  I think at first I wanted to like it more than I did.  But like any truly great album, this took time to digest, and I realized there was something to be said for it.  Shortly after my initial encounter with Kid A I scraped together some cash and went out and bought a copy at an indie record store in Berkeley.  As a promotion for buying the album, I was given a Radiohead bear pin, a Radiohead bear sticker, and a poster of the cover of SPIN Magazine featuring Radiohead with the caption “The world’s greatest rock band?”  The poster still hangs in my room as does the sticker, but as far as I can recall, the pin is in the possession of my college buddy Pat who was one of the ones who got me into Radiohead in the first place.

Over the years, Kid A has come to define the album that people either love or hate.  I have not come across anyone who merely says that it is OK, or fine, or whatever other mediocre description you can think of.  It is the essence of a divisive album and while I completely understand why someone can hate it, I wholeheartedly disagree with that person.  Yeah, it’s different and odd and out there, but it is also one of the most innovative and creative albums that I have ever heard.  And in this day and age of endless music pouring out from all different areas, there is something to be said for the more creative and interesting music that varies from song to song even within the same album.  In this example, there are elements of rock, folk, jazz, dance, electronic and classical music.  Few artists branch out this far and at the same time create something this groundbreaking.  Say what you will about Radiohead, but they are anything but boring.

There are some albums that hold a special place in one’s heart and this typically happens when one can associate a positive experience with the album.  My year in California with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps was one of the best of my life and this album is the definitive album of that time for me.  It will forever hold a significant place in my heart and I freely admit that I probably like it more because of the circumstances surrounding my initial exposure to the album.  I remember sitting in my friends’ house in Sacramento watching an episode of Saturday Night Live where Radiohead played a blistering and jaw-dropping version of “The National Anthem”.  My brother, who is not a fan of this album by any means, said at the time that it was one of the best live performances he’s ever seen on television.  It’s hard to argue with that statement.

The more I listened to this record, the more I liked it.  Soon I learned that there would be another album Radiohead would release in the spring.  This one was billed as being similar to Kid A in its emphasis on electronics (as many of the songs were recorded at the same time as the Kid A tracks) but that it would also have more guitars.  I was excited by this because while I did (and still do) love Kid A I also missed the guitars.  I remember thinking they could have gotten a lot of their ideas down while adding more guitars and making it more of a rock-based album.  Several years later in retrospect, I’m really glad they made the album the way they did.  It represented a distinct break for the band and its melancholy and bitter sentiments were exactly what was needed for the group at the time.  They grew to hate touring and the media frenzy that followed them in the wake of OK Computer and in some respects; it was amazing that they were even able to make another record.  I later read that “How to Disappear Completely” was inspired by R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe who had befriended Thom Yorke around the OK Computer days.  Evidently, when Yorke started freaking out about all the attention his band was getting, Stipe advised him to just sit in a corner, close his eyes and repeat the phrase “I’m not here, this isn’t happening” over and over again.  It’s an extraordinarily delusional and disingenuous piece of advice that denies all reality, but it was also exactly what Yorke needed to hear at the time to get through that tour. 

At the end of the decade, there were several lists of the best albums of the oughts and Kid A topped many of the charts I had seen.  Maybe it received more praise than was deserved.  Maybe people said they liked it more than they really did because they felt they had to.  And maybe people don’t give enough of a chance because they are too set in their ways and cannot grasp certain styles that branch out beyond what is normally desirable and enjoyed.  To me, all the controversy and the ‘love it or hate it’ attitude towards the album as a whole makes it even better.  For in today’s music business where we are flooded with generic and boring music that is in the mainstream for a fleeting second, it feels very satisfying that there are albums like Kid A that provoke thought and conversation in the realm important and influential music and art.  I love this album, but I think I love what it represents (the ideas, the history, the creativity, the boldness, the necessity, the genius, the integrity) more than the music itself.  I suppose this last statement could lead others to call me a snob and that’s certainly true.  But with so much great music out there, sometimes it takes circumstances surrounding an album that truly make it great.  And that is what Kid A is for me.


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