After Radiohead released their mind-blowing OK Computer about 3 years ago, they've been embraced by both critics and fans alike as the group who might just save rock music. They sold millions of copies of the album and it took them from the band who'd released a couple singles to date to one whom everyone seemed to adore. After touring relentlessy, they took their time in completing this follow-up release and while they've again changed their sound somewhat, they've come up with another awesome release.
It goes without saying that this was one of the most anticipated releases of the year, and it's mainly because Radiohead has always been a band that has always been good at confounding expectations. I'd been wondering for some time which direction they would go after OK Computer took post rock and about 10 other styles and boiled them down into one of my favorite releases of all time. Kid A is the album that I refused to download off Napster, even though I could have months earlier, simply because I wanted to hear it crystalline-pure when I played it for the first time. It's also the album I broke my self-imposed RIAA major-label boycott for, simply because I was so enthralled with the group and the way they were progressing (their How Am I Driving? EP took their sound even a few steps further) and I had to hear what everyone was praising so heavily.
The album is both what I expected, and not what I expected. It takes off in even more of an electronic direction than any of their past releases and is much less reliant on the standard-issue guitars and drums of most rock albums. Call it post rock or whatever the hell you want to, but Radiohead again managed to smelt musical influences into their own special blend. Even Thom Yorke's vocals take more of a backseat to overall sound-textures on the release. Instead of being in the forefront of the tracks, he's often chopped, garbled, distorted, or simply not even there at all. The packaging is even more enigmatic than ever, hiding album information deep in a folded booklet (as well as another booklet of oddities under the CD tray) and eschewing lyrics for visual textures.
The album opens up with the swirling majesty of "Everything In It's Right Place" and while Yorke sings fairly normally over a warm keyboard sound and a soft drum-machine beat, artifacts of his vocals make up between 2-5 more layers of the track and swirl around the main part of the track, sometimes rather hauntingly. The second (and album-titled track) takes off in an even different direction, sounding like the quiet beauty of an Aphex Twin ambient track with nearly indecipherable, robotic sounding vocals by Yorke. One of the only songs on the release that follows more of the standard rock format comes up next in the form of the horn-infused "The National Anthem."
From there, the album goes into the cinematic-sounding "How To Disappear Completely" and the very Brian Eno-esque instrumental "Treefingers" before another more standard-sounding track in "Optimistic." It's the only track on the album with electric guitars that are actually recognizable as electric guitars and it lurches along with intensity as Yorke weaves in and out of falsetto. One of the most interesting (and probably one of my favorite) tracks on the album is the damn-near dancy track of "Idioteque." With a beat that kicks right along and loads of keyboard sweeps, it's proof that drum machines aren't just for electronic geeks anymore.
In the end, I feel like although this is still a great album for the group, it's not quite as solid overall as OK Computer. It still blows away 90% of everything else released this year, but there are still a couple tracks on the release that leave me wanting a bit more, unlike the complete solidity of their last release. It could be that my opinion will change with time, and I don't deny that. This is a very layered and more subtle release, and it once again has me wondering what they'll do next. Chances are, it will be amazing.