Monday, May 7, 2018

Storytelling in Radiohead's Kid A

Radiohead taps into a modernist trope and explores the complexities of the narrator's inability to communicate.  ♦ 
The release of Radiohead’s fourth studio album, Kid A, was a turning point for the already critically-acclaimed band. Gone were the jangly guitars and sharp grunge-influenced hooks found in the band’s earlier works. Radiohead managed to completely reinvent themselves in the three years after the release of the OK Computer. The band returned with a vengeance, boasting a heavy emphasis on electronic soundscapes and rhythms. Likewise, the lyrics and narrative structure of this new album radically differed from what Radiohead (or anyone else, for that matter) had ever produced. Kid A, upon first glance, is a collection of seemingly unrelated tracks bound together by the odd, eerie glow of Radiohead’s new-found sound. Upon further inspection, the album is a cohesive narrative of a single nameless protagonist – a protagonist suffering from severe anxiety and social inhibitions. This overarching narrative slowly reveals itself chronologically in the first five tracks of the album. In contrast, the latter half of the album takes a more splintered approach to storytelling. To grasp any semblance of narrative on anything more than a thematic level, one should, in my opinion, skip around in the track listing. Nevertheless, Kid A, through and through, is a work of art bearing the overarching theme of social alienation and anxiety. With this in mind, we can preparedly analyze the album.

   In the opener, “Everything in Its Right Place”, the initial synth line is cold and calculated, devoid of emotion. Front man Thom Yorke sings in a disarrayed knot of incoherent cutting and babbling, as if he is singing through a skipping record. One line rises above the rest and repeats in an icy falsetto, “Everything in its right place.” The contrast between the syncopated rhythm of the synths, the skipping, whispering background voices, and the repeated lead lyric together signals to the listener that the point of view Yorke is singing from is not his own, but rather one of a persona, a character. “Everything in its right place” juxtaposes the odd time signature, 10/4, and the out-of-place background vocals. It’s as if the narrator is trying to convince himself that everything is fine by repeating this line over and over. As the song progresses, the voices begin to rustle and distress more and more. These voices are meant to represent the people in the world around him. They are gibberish to him. Noise. The narrator cannot understand what others are saying and is unable to communicate with them. This is most evidenced by the lyric, “What, what was that you tried to say?” This particular line is bolstered by a grand crescendo of synths, Yorke’s melody line, and the background voices all in unison. The voices cut out completely, leaving only the keyboards. The narrator returns, now a garbled and distorted mess, blending in with the background voices.
   Onto the title track, “Kid A.” It opens with a warm and bubbly synth line with the timbre of a child’s music box that is still somehow desolate. The lyrics again remain abstract and open to various interpretations. Yorke’s voice is fed through a poorly-enunciated vocoder, resulting in childlike babble. Yorke associates this with music box motif and the title, Kid A, to link infancy as a metaphor for social isolation. It is evident that, hidden within the garbled lyrics, there is a lot of meaning that the narrator is trying to convey, however the audience, cannot make any sense of it. There is a disconnect between what the narrator says and how the audience interprets it due to the gaps in the narrator’s ability to convey meaning.

   We progress to the third track, “The National Anthem”, looking for answers. It begins immediately with a harsh, droning baseline. This bass line continues throughout nearly the entire track and represents the underlying “fear.” Yorke’s vocals are heavily compressed to be cold and distant. Robotic, even. His delivery is shaky and weak-willed, in character with what we know about the narrator thus far. The line “everyone, everyone is so near, everyone has got the fear, it’s holding on, it’s holding on” directly correlates to the horn-voice motif that directly follows. The blaring tones of the horns throughout the song are meant to represent those around him, similarly to the voice motif in “Everything In Its Right Place.” As a coping mechanism for a nebulous sort of crippling fear, the horn players shout at one another and quickly transform into a riot of strident noise. The narrator still is unable to communicate with anyone around him. Halfway through the final instrumental section, the drums drop out and the horns continue on. The chaos carries on, and the drums rejoin. The confusion and chaos culminate into the musical equivalent of fiery train wreck. Even when the drums and bass stop for good twenty seconds later, the horns split into two sides and the cacophony carries on, eventually fading out. Even when “the fear” isn’t present, the people around the narrator, the people in his nation, still lash out and quarrel to the very end. Perhaps “the fear” is the “national anthem.” It hums in the background, always present and paranoid in the ears of the listener.
   Fourth is “How to Disappear Completely.” The sharp hum in the intro hangs over from the headache of the previous track. For the first time there is an acoustic guitar, a familiar instrument for fans of Radiohead’s earlier work. This regression may symbolize that the narrator is trying to find comfort in the familiar. The rolling bass line gives the otherwise slow track a surprising amount of progression and drive. The narrator, even in a moment of relative quiet, cannot drop everything, stop where he is, and try to work through the emotions he is experiencing. In addition, Yorke’s vocals are the clearest they have been thus far on the album, indicating that the narrator is in his own headspace. The repeated line: “I’m not here, this isn’t happening” convey the narrator’s strong desire to be apart from the world around him. The first two deliveries of the “I’m not here” line are weak and self-pitiful. Similar to “Everything In Its Right Place”, the narrator repeats himself over and over, hoping to make his chant reality. As the song progresses, the instrumental swells to match Yorke’s increasingly intense delivery, paralleling the rising resolve in the narrator. The monologue continues, describing a series of intense scenes; “strobe lights and blown speakers, fireworks and hurricanes”, suggesting that the narrator is done waiting and suffering in a hole of self-pity; he is ready for action. The final repetition of the chant is sung with intense resolution – no longer is this lyric a catchphrase for coping with anxiety – now it is a fact. The narrator isn’t there. The narrator has decided to withdraw from reality entirely and instead, retreat into a numbing, blissful mind space as described in the following ambient piece, “Treefingers.”
   “Treefingers” boasts no lyrics to speak of. No percussion, no melody. It is peace of mind, represented by an earthy emptiness crafted from warm guitar samples. The narrator has finally found a moment of harmony, by retreating into himself, into his own world.
   The second half of the album begins to splinter and fall away from the narrative thus establish. The ambiance of “Treefingers” links the audience to a different reality, one that feels peaceful but not final. This indecision of reality segues well into the next song, “In Limbo.”
   The lyrics of “In Limbo” describe being lost at sea. The guitar’s pitch rolls up and down and up again and again in triplets. Listening to this track is a hypnotic experience, dream-like, even. The refrain: “you’re living in a fantasy world” reflects this. Additionally, the time signature switches subtly from 6/4 to 4/4 in inconsistently throughout the song. You get the sense that everything isn’t where it should be, that everything isn’t in its right place. Occasionally there are an extra two beats or a series of strange clicks between time signatures. The audience might question whether or not what he or she is hearing is real. “In Limbo” is such an extraordinary piece of music for this reason. The instrumentation questions reality. Digging deeper into the lyrics, Yorke describes finding messages in bottles and not being able to read them. It seems the narrator’s inability to relate to others is beginning to disturb the peace enjoyed in the previous song. The narrator’s “beautiful world” comes crashing down and the song ends in a harsh collapse of loud sound.
   We launch into track eight, “Idioteque.” The piercing, industrial drums serve as a cruel welcome back into reality. The synth line flows into the listener’s ears like harsh light. It sounds beautiful, eerie, and artificial all at the same time. The synth quickly fades, and a rattle begins, giving the impression of being pursued. The percussion enters and heightens the threat. The lyrics are strange and disconnected. “Who’s in a bunker”, “Women and children first”, “Ice age coming”, “Throw it in the fire”, “This is really happening” – all of these phrases do not contribute to a linear narrative but rather point to a central theme – panic. The incoherent nature of the lyrics is vital to the emotional impact of the song. The narrator is being assaulted with emotions, questions, and confusion. All of it hits him so fast that he cannot possibly address it all at once. After the second chorus, the drum sample is reversed for a few seconds, mimicking a heartbeat. Ghostly screeching and the rattle from the beginning emerge again. The song never grandstands and instead maintains a steady tension until the end. The narrator makes no effort to fight his anxiety, there is no resolve this time.

   The narrative picks back up in the final track, “Motion Picture Soundtrack.” This song is a beautiful closer to both the album and the narrative. The organ harmony at the very start invites the listener to embark on one last journey with the narrator. The organ carries the tone of a gentle, floating fog horn, and ticks and clicks hide themselves in the background, like ocean waves. And as you progress further and further into the mist, you hear harps. It’s almost like a strange death knell. The lyrics describe “cheap sex and sad films.” The narrator has been trying to drown out his suffering with acts of shallow, immediate gratification. None of it is fulfilling his one true need: genuine human interaction. He has given up on attempting to communicate, “Stop sending letters, letters always get burned.” It’s not hard to see the toll life has taken on the narrator, and it’s not hard to see what he intends to do next. The narrator mentions sleeping pills and red wine and says, “I will see you in the next life.” The album’s ending suggests the narrator will commit suicide.
   The nature of the album’s conclusion begs a philosophical question: for someone who has never been able to communicate and relate to people, for someone whose whole life has been ridden with panic and anxiety, for someone who has never experienced true, sustaining joy, is the solution to all of their torment suicide? The album, in my view, doesn’t attempt to answer the question, nor does it advocate for the act of suicide. It serves to tell the story of one individual and the choices they made. Kid A is the narrative of someone struggling from severe anxiety and depression; it acts as a window into one individual’s struggle with mental illness. This is but one of the reasons why Kid A is a masterpiece. Never mind the incredible, genre-breaking production. Never mind the peculiarly irresistible music theory nuances behind the instrumentation. Never mind the fact that this album re-cemented Radiohead as rock and roll royalty. The central narrative alone makes Kid A an exceptional work of art. It carries a very important message – a message that everyone should hear.
  • About the Author
    Noah Dirig is a sophomore at Miami University pursuing a major in Software Engineering and a minor in Creative Writing. He values music to an almost unhealthy degree; some of his favorite bands include Toad the Wet Sprocket, Jars of Clay, Radiohead, and Arcade Fire. He co-leads a local alternative band in Oxford, OH, known as Seven Meter Sun, for which he is lead songwriter.

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