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Rewind to Radiohead’s deep-dive into electronica

The English band releases a box set to celebrate two albums that showcased its changing soundscape 20 years ago

Radiohead at the 2008 Main Square Festival in Arras, France. 
Radiohead at the 2008 Main Square Festival in Arras, France.  (Wikimedia Commons)

Twenty years ago, if you had been tuned to Radiohead, the release of the English band’s fourth and fifth albums would likely have come as a bonanza, given that they were released almost together. You had barely wrapped your head around their deep-dive into electronica on Kid A, released in October 2000, when the band released their fifth album, Amnesiac, just over six months later.

Early this month, to mark two decades of the albums, Radiohead released a box set of the two. Titled Kid A Mnesia, it has 34 songs, including the originals, unreleased versions and several untitled tracks. Kid A Mnesia is, in fact, how the two albums could have been released originally.

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Over 20 years later, after the shift in the band’s sound, it is like revisiting an old and much loved destination. But while the new box set brings back a host of memories, it also provides an opportunity (via the hitherto unreleased tracks) to get a glimpse of how the band was eschewing its older soundscape to try and embrace a brave new one at the turn of the century.

At the time, much as Radiohead fans may have liked the band’s deviation into full-blooded electronica on Kid A, some may have wished they would go back to a bit of guitar rock, of the arena-filling sort that had wowed everybody on their earlier albums, notably the exquisite OK Computer from 1997.

OK Computer, the definitive moment in Radiohead’s career, had taken guitar rock to an astounding next level. From its opener, Airbag, a somewhat autobiographical song that may have references to an auto accident in which frontman Thom Yorke had been involved (In a deep, deep sleep/ Of the innocent/ I am born again/ In a fast German car/ I’m amazed that I survived/ An airbag saved my life), to the three states of mind in the next song, Paranoid Android (whose lyrics were apparently drawn from Yorke’s experience in an LA bar where he was surrounded by strangers high on cocaine), right down to the last song, the slowed-down Tourist, OK Computer was an album that begged repeat spinning. And when I got the album in a cassette format, I played it countless times—in the car, at home, at work on earphones, and before going to bed.

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Kid A followed three years later. Like many Radiohead fans, I had fallen in love with their characteristically melancholic lyrics, Yorke’s haunting vocal range that could turn from tenor to falsetto, and the muscular tightness of the band punctuated by searing guitar riffs. But on Kid A their sound had changed. The guitar riffs were all but gone, and in their place were synth lines, saxes and string arrangements. Yorke’s vocals were there, of course, shifting typically from falsetto to lower ranges, even growls. But when you first heard Kid A, it could feel like a totally different band.

Kid A has been widely acknowledged by critics as Radiohead’s best album. It wasn’t an easy one to get used to, though. For one, the lyrics are more abstract and less personal. The first track, Everything In Its Right Place, has a verse that repeats the line “Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon” four times. Another song, Optimistic, is about realising how you can do things that can lead to a form of contentment, though not one that is necessarily cheerful. Yes, weird, but then again, fitting well into the moody oeuvre of a band whose music has often been termed “sad” by its detractors.

If many Radiohead albums require several listens to fully appreciate the intricate complexity of their compositions or interpret their lyrics, Kid A took that to a different level. The music had changed. It was electronica, but not the common garden variety of a dabble here and a dabble there with electronic sonic gear (which many bands of that era were trying out). It was, instead, a complete immersion into non-frivolous, intelligent compositions that created a fragile, jittery and vulnerable atmosphere.

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It marked a major evolution for a band that was not intimidated or afraid to change a formula, however successful it had been. Kid A was the outcome of many experimentations. And those sessions of trying out new songs and new sounds resulted in many recordings that didn’t make it to the final album.

Released a few months later, Amnesiac was like a sequel to Kid A, a twin if you like. But Kid A was a tough act to follow and although Amnesiac had all the ingredients of Radiohead’s virtuosity, it would become an also-ran in their catalogue of albums.

Now, in addition to the nostalgia-filled and experimental-soundscape box set, the band has also come up with an exhibition. Originally planned as a physical exhibition of installations, the covid-19 pandemic has seen it being turned into a “virtual experience”, available for downloading on Macs, PCs and PlayStation 5. It is set against a virtual landscape of art by Yorke and visual artist Stanley Donwood, and although it is not a video game, it has been put together by the video-games developer Epic Games Publishing.

Kid A and Amnesiac were trailblazers when they came out. And the virtual exhibition, a bells-and-whistles feature, could perhaps draw in new listeners.

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