A note to begin:
I know we're saving the artwork discussion for another day, but looking at the artwork for Kid A and Amnesiac is, I feel, radically important. Please take a few minutes to look and reflect.
While these albums are criticized for being "too cerebral," I have found the reality to be quite the opposite: the worlds that are depicted in these soundscapes are so vast, and so terrifying, that they require the entirety of your being to fully engage. I would encourage you to spend an hour at least to simply sit and listen distracted by nothing but your imagination (and perhaps the artwork and lyrics). Attempt to actively engage these albums and populate your psyche with the universe depicted therein. While I don't mean to be overly dramatic, the experience for me is beautiful, disturbing, awful (emphasis on AWE), and above all, profoundly NEW. Often dark and deeply unsettling, but always alien and unique. How many things in the world can you really say that about? For me, not many.
If you have the time and cash I would strongly encourage you to buy the physical CD so you can take a look. These images, particularly in those found in the Kid A booklet, affected me deeply when I first saw them as a kid and continue to today. Pay particular attention to the jumbled, nihilistic asides in the Kid A booklet.
"If you look at the artwork for Kid A...well, that´s looking at the fire from afar. Amnesiac is the sound of what it feels like to be standing in the fire"
- Thom Yorke: The Big Issue*, Jan 2001
Much of the discussion this Friday will focus on the relationship of the two albums. Should they be thought of as Kid A and Kid B? Does each have an individual identity, and can either album stand alone? Is Amnesiac simply a collection of Kid A throwaways?
My thoughts are that everything Radiohead does is painstakingly deliberate artistically, and they would never try to pass off a collection of B-sides as an album just to try and cash in on their outtakes. The band has more or less stated as much in interviews anyway. But since they (Kid A and Amnesiac) were both recorded in the same session, I think we still have to view the two as companion albums; albeit companion albums with a careful design, the pair fitting together like puzzle pieces.
I've always liked that above quote, despite (or perhaps due to) its obscurity. Isn't this, after all, what we all found so enticing about OK Computer's lyrical approach in comparison to Thom's earlier writing, the way it collages meaning instead of scrawling it in a diary with schoolgirlish vulnerability? Kid A and Amnesiac deal with the mythical tomes of Icarus and Prometheus, the tribal dance, the kids singing songs around a campfire, a city razed and burning: what happens when people play with fire? How does it feel to look from afar and not feel the heat? How does it feel to be up in flames, feeling and seeing nothing but fire all around you?
Kid A, like OK Computer, is quite voyeuristic. Thom sets the stage: "there are two colours in my head." Thom sees the world for all its contradictions; he points the lens and spares the commentary. Order in chaos. Hope in fear. Everything in nothing. On "How to Disappear Completely" he can walk through walls, go everywhere, see everything, while occupying no time, no space. Why is it so unsettling when we hear him talk about everything in its right place? Shouldn't that be reassuring, as much so as being "fitter, happier, and more productive?" The album reveals the biggest lie - we, as humans, love the fundamental shortcut of addressing problems with positive labels; inoculating the disease with euphemisms, even naming it as an asset. If (pulling lyrics from the album) women and children lying in bunkers, children being cut in half, cheap sex and sleeping pills are a portrait of everything existing in its right place, then God help us. That lemon we're sucking on is the notion that modern anxiety is not an anomaly, it's the rising bile that we try to suppress with ignorance - ears stuffed closed, eyes wide shut. See you in the next life.
With Amnesiac, Thom is the insect drawn towards the light. We are not watching the evening news, we are living on the edge of the earthquake in the alien nation. We are trying to put everything in its right place; but in "Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box" it is revealed that "we are looking in the wrong place." The lens shifts and now we are placed squarely in the midst of the horror. We are reasonable men, and we want to be left alone, but we can't ignore the bitter taste of the lemon in our mouths.
There is an obession on the album with irredeemabilitly. It is a response to Jesus' omnipresence in the psychology of the Western world. Is the idea of a next life just a way to navigate through the swamp of the one we currently occupy, a proverbial light at the end of the tunnel? Are there trapdoors we can't come back from? If we are washed down the waterfall, lost at sea, is there a way back out?
When I reach the end of this album, however, I always feel oddly uplifted. "There are weapons we can use," Thom croons on Dollars and Sense, "be constructive with your blues." It's possible to read this ironically, but I get the impression that Thom is being fairly oblique here. If we are stuck here, burning, why doesn't someone go grab a bucket of water?
I am always inspired by these albums to get off my ass and be part of the solution. Radiohead has always done us the courtesy of being truthful, and the truth is that on a dark planet, dark things happen. Led by the Virgilesque/Pied Piper figure presented in "Kid A" I am brought, like Dante, through the depths of hell with a fortified soul and a hatred of evil, no longer tripped up by little white lies.
*Read about "The Big Issue" here. Pertinent to our discussion on Radiohead's social conscience.