33 1/3 is a series of pocket-sized books, each volume focusing on a single album. This is the twelfth installment of one person’s quest to read all 57 (and counting) of these things, and to scribble some impressions of each. As always, please keep in mind that it’s just one opinion, often skewed, and somewhat ill-informed. Accuracy is ensured as time permits. For the full introduction, check out the first installment and read the others here. On to the demi-tomes!
Thom Yorke and his band Radiohead created Kid A (and its immediate follow up Amnesiac) in a huge burst of inspiration after OK, Computer, apparently in dread of the success they were having and the expectations of being placed in the mainstream spotlight. That’s an oversimplification of the album’s backstory and source of meaning, as there are issues about what it means to be a consumer and what it means to be an artist, and how those entwine, and oh yeah, what the hell an album is going to be anymore when it was created (1999). But it’ll do, the way that hands on a clock sort of tell you what time it is, at least to the clock, if the clock is running, and maybe it’s sort of matched up to what we know as “time.”
Marvin Lin has written a 33 1/3 book that is philosophically challenging but quite accessible in terms of literature, the first volume in the series since J. Niimi’s noble Murmur to go a long way in helping to demystify the album-shaped work of a band that couldn’t help but be mysterious. Even if they seemed to deplore the mystery-tropes of artsy pop bands, and seemed to realize its main format (the album) was falling to pieces (all songs soon to be broken on the cornerstone of the Internet). Minneapolis-based Lin is the editorial honcho behind and co-starter of the excellent website Tiny Mix Tapes, has also edited at Pitchfork, and brings an urgency and depth to Kid A that is just right. He was the kid who was there at the record store at midnight to snatch up a copy of the full length as it hit the streets, even if his up-too-late devotional anxiety put him under after he scored it and listened.
Like most of us in those waning days of the Clinton-era big music business, fans or musicians or label workers all, we knew something big was about to happen, but we didn’t know how bad. This was when indie labels had major league daddies and mommies and weren’t told yet that we all had to hate downloading. So a lot of us were downloading. (And after we were told we were to officially hate downloading, we still downloaded.) I never downloaded anything illegally (honest! I swear!) but I remember my millionaire boss at a label not caring yet if I did. Yorke apparently heard the big boys pissing and moaning about the Fall in the hallowed halls of EMI, and combining that with his distaste for the archetypes of “new product,” “come backs,” and his least favorite flavor, “tortured artist,” separated the band Radiohead from its sound, and the songs from his voice. Nigel Godrich helped him put the instruments over there, and “Pro-Tools, Cubase, Auto-Tune, Logic” helped Yorke mix his voice up as much as the words he chopped from a page and threw in a bag and took out again, classic Dada-style.
The literariness and sophistication of OK, Computer was now going to be run through the same cycle of cut-up of Talking Heads’ Remain In Light and Bowie on his Berlin trilogy; one might say this is just another move on the part of less commercially-concerned musicians, but pretty soon only a couple of hip-hop guys would be left in the mainstream trying to mind-fuck the media and masses at all. Radiohead is arguably the last big-ass chart-friendly rock band to pull themselves apart enough on Kid A to see how far their fans would follow. In between all of us chattering about the worth of pop music and the economic silence-cone closing around any large scale extreme freedoms of expression, Radiohead threw back to the era in which original new wave brought in wild textures and disassociated the artist-as-relatable author voice; and simultaneously moved everything forward in terms of anti-branding and fans’ financial access to work (over time). “Everything In Its Right Place,” “The National Anthem,” and “Packt Like Sardines In A Crushed Tin Box” still enflame the inner anarchist to pull out the earbuds when you get the hell off the commuter box and go graffiti the grey walls of a theater owned by an Ayn Rand fan, dance all night at a local hip-hop show even if the DJ’s stuff breaks down constantly, follow some cops around in a clown suit with a digital camera, and hit some dirty coffee house spoken word open mikes for a spark of truth, a scent of everyday soil, a flicker of non-computer love.
Lin doesn’t argue about the greatness of the record Kid A, but chronicles how this moment in time was met by a band that could afford to confront the compromises that were happening to corporate-sponsored music. This was a band that inspired perhaps the last wave of fanboy passion for white guys with guitars and drums worldwide, and like many great bands before them, broke it all up and threw it back into their devoted throngs to play with. Unlike a lot of those bands though, who were destroyed by egotistic drive pulled by market considerations, this time society met its match. It was only the beginning though. There was a lot to be depressed about in the ‘00s, but Radiohead’s melancholy, chaotic, complicated, thought-provoking pop music was far from the cause. Lin does a great job discussing one very powerful, productive scheme of solution.