“I had this thing for a while where I was falling through trap doors all the time into oblivion… It was happening towards the end of OK Computer. I was a complete fucking mess when that cycle had finished,” Thom Yorke told the NME back in 2000.
On the eve of releasing their fourth album Kid A, Yorke and the rest of his Radiohead bandmates were still partially lost within the processes of dealing with its predecessor’s incredible success. Released three years prior, OK Computer had catapulted the five friends to the pinnacle of rock music stardom. But what they encountered when there, from their commercial and critical high point, wasn’t necessarily understood or even enjoyed.
The result was a follow-up album full of shadowed sketches that were transfixed with this notion. That while success had been attained, it had failed to quell all manners of self-doubt and insecurities that had previously existed. In many ways the fame and fortune the band achieved only served to heighten this isolation and deepening sense of detachment.
“The thing is you’re always developing and expanding. It’s a protean thing. And a public image can’t keep pace with it,” bassist Colin Greenwood told The Guardian. “So it – the process of success – is like this slow-drying glue that sets around you. It slows you down and gums you up.”
Everything In Its Right Place was the first song on the record and the first anyone actually heard of a completed album track. It was a response in sorts to OK Computer – the title said firmly with tongue dug into cheek.
“Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon,” Yorke mutters as whirls of piano echo all around him.
Recorded in four different studios, in three countries, across a fractious period, Kid A began in Paris in January 1999. Setting up at the Guillaume Tell studio and tasking themselves with effectively forgetting all that had come before in favour of creating something new, it yielded no real results.
“Basically it was all frustration,” Yorke explained about why the band sought to change their sound. “I wasn’t getting off on anything that we’d normally do. So it was just ‘we have to do something else.’”
However three months later and with no significant headway having been made, the band decamped to Copenhagen. Their stay in Denmark wasn’t a long one though. Just over a month later they were back on English shores, taking up residence in a Gloucestershire studio.
Yet despite the constant moving around which may have hinted at signs of unproductivity, the band had actually began to hit their stride. In fact, by the time they arrived back home they had recorded an incredible amount of incomplete material.
“It was a difficult process to get going. But once we were up and running, it started going too well,” guitarist Jonny Greenwood said. “We started recording good song after good song and it became difficult to stop.”
Approaching the album like it was a blank canvas, the band pieced it together one little component at a time, in order to create a collage. Delicate squiggles were favoured over broad, heavy strokes as they claimed it was more a process of reworking than recording once they started to click into gear.
“A lot of the songwriting now isn’t really about song writing at all. It’s about editing, building up a lot of material, then piecing it together like a painter,” Yorke told Select.
Each day Yorke would enter into the studio faced with a large whiteboard of sorts. The possibility of working on any number of things faced the band, as at times around 50 different snippets of music were worked on by various members. The process was an overwhelming but ultimately liberating one. Instead of walking into the studio and setting up to play through a song each day, the band set to work on a scattering of different parts.
The separation in working situations also resulted in a fragmented album as a whole. But this was something which Yorke, as band leader, actively encouraged. It was the sound of struggling both outside of the music and also within it. Unable to translate the sounds in his head onto record and recovering from his breakdown of sorts, Kid A offered a perfect representation of these factors.
However, with its standing as a classic album nowadays, it is easy to forget that upon its release it wasn’t always met with such adulation. It debuted at number one, but it seemed ill at ease in such a high chart position, while critics constantly questioned its legitimacy.
“What do they want for sounding like Aphex Twin circa 1993, a medal?” one magazine wrote.
Meanwhile, the NME was only slightly less cutting about the bands evolution away from guitars in favour of synthesizers and electronics.
“Making experimental music is the easy way out,” they wrote. “Time will judge it. But right now, Kid A has the ring of a lengthy, over-analysed mistake.”
The fact that the album is almost painfully insular left it open to being criticised as overthought and overanalysed, but Yorke argued that it actually represented the opposite of this. Tracks meander in fragmented pieces to create a whole, which is indicative of a constant pursuit. Nothing really remains for long enough so as to become comfortable with it. Instead it proves to be disorientating but invigorating as the listener is invited into a strange new world.
The distortions hide Yorke’s vocals to the point where at times they are indecipherable. But the unemotional delivery, coupled with a seeming aversion to melodies, meant that his voice acts more as an instrument in the mix. His cut up lyrical style, aping the work of the likes of William Burroughs, working perfectly within the music of programmed beats and restrained riffs.
“You’re not supposed to think about the words. That’s the whole point all through the record,” Yorke explained. “The lyrics are over before you have time to talk and worry about it. That’s how it works.”
The hidden nature of his vocals and the glacial instrumentations meant that not much initially makes a connection. It’s the equivalent of walking around in an unfamiliar city. The basics are all there; big concrete buildings, expansive skylines, and the cold grey pavement under foot. But it is only once you know where you’re going that hidden alleyways begin to reveal themselves and hidden treasures can be found.
At the inception of the record, Yorke wanted to address numerous political topics, but as both himself and the band fell further and further into the process of recording this idea faded away. Existential fears instead started to plague the album that was being crafted together.
When they were making, it all members were either approaching or past the age of 30. The realisation that time is always slipping away and no one can escape the inevitability of death weighed heavily, especially on Yorke’s shoulders.
“It’s about the fear of dying,” he revealed once in a rare unguarded moment.
On the string-laden How To Disappear Completely Yorke sings, “I’m not here, this isn’t happening.” It’s almost as if he is lost within a waking nightmare and is trying to convince himself that it isn’t all as bad as he thinks it is. Yet on Idioteque he addresses the Ice Age as a very real threat to humanity, while the title track strings together some of his most “brutal and horrible” words of his career. “We got heads on sticks, you got ventriloquists,” he sings.
With a plethora of finished material, by April 2000 the album was complete. The only thing left to do was organise the track-listing after deciding on what songs to actually include. The fact that every band member had differing opinions on what to put on and what to leave off meant this stage took a particularly long time though.
“’We operate like the UN,’ Yorke once told an interviewer. “But I’m America.”
In the end the result was an album that offered not just a peek inside a clouded mind as it attempted to function, but a full immersion. Fears and anxieties were wrapped around a skeletal electronic structure, which helped Radiohead escape from the constraints of what a rock band should be.
Disillusioned with a seeming lack of possibilities and struck by a severe case of writers block, the band stumbled upon the endless possibilities of what a rock band could be.