Okay, let’s get this out of the way. Kid A & Amnesiac hold a laureled place in my favourite albums list, so I’m not even going to attempt to write something objective or unbiased. Before I can go into the albums though, I need to give a little background.
During the promotion for OK Computer, Radiohead embarked on a gruelling world tour comprised of 104 dates. As the world tour progressed the group grew weary, and this descent is catalogued in the film Meeting People is Easy. The film captures the sheer suffocation of suddenly being in the spotlight very well and depicts the generalised anxiety and tension/stress on tour. Following this tour the group had come to loathe guitars, and Yorke had come to idolize electronic artists such as Modeselektor, Four Tet, Unkle and Aphex Twin. When asked in an interview as to why he adored such artists, Yorke replied that he liked the lack of identity within that genre of music. The artist’s real names were often not known and what little information that was released was scarce. Yorke would use many methods heard in these artists in Radiohead’s music, going as far as to distort his voice on the titular track of Kid A and on Amnesiac’s Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors. The band as a whole was consuming more varied music, from contemporary classical to Miles Davis and Charles Mingus.
It was during the OK Computer tour that something “inside Yorke “went pop” and he descended into a deep depression, losing faith in everything he and the group stood for”. A new approach was needed. Yorke had also been stricken by writer’s block. Unable to write songs, he put lyrics into a hat and drew them out, using the famous cut up method used by Bowie and Burroughs. When Kid A was released in 2000, listeners were met with an absence of guitar, they had been replaced by synths and drum machines. At the time, it alienated their fan base who merely expected a continuation of OK Computer, but its stature continues to grow as a piece of art with each passing year.
When I first heard Kid A, like most people on the first listen, I was flabbergasted. I simply didn’t know what to make of it, but I got the sense that it was important. Like most things I come to adore, I hated it at first. I returned to it after a few months, and it clicked. I adored it. The album was designed as a whole, designed as a piece of music to be listened to front to end, rather than listening to individual tracks. The album also had no lyric sheets, as the band felt as though the music couldn’t be separated from the music, they simply did not exist as a separate entity.
Listening to both albums, it is clear that this was Radiohead’s most fertile creative period. Both of the albums were recorded in the same studio sessions, and the band toyed with the idea of releasing a double album. Luckily, they decided against it. How two albums with markedly different moods and feelings were made in the same sessions in beyond me.
Undoubtedly, the albums are among the most personal that Radiohead have produced. Everything in its Right Place takes its titular lyric from something Yorke’s wife would tell him when he was having a panic attack. How to Disappear Completely takes its titular lyric from advice that REM’s Michael Stipe gave Yorke on tour. This personal edge I think, is shown the most on the last track of Kid A, Motion Picture Soundtrack. The band had played the song live in the Netherlands in 1996, and the lyrics are much more direct and personal. The lyric goes, in the 1996 version, “I think I’m going crazy, maybe”. The recorded 2000 version goes “I think you’re crazy, maybe”. Here Yorke has changed the first person to the second, and distanced himself from emotional turmoil. He begins to process and understand, come to terms with what has occurred.
While Kid A took me some time to warm up to, Amnesiac, on the other hand, I loved immediately, as soon as the eerie percussion of Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box hit my ears. Listened to back to back, the main different between Kid A and Amnesiac is this – listening to Kid A is like watching a forest fire, and Amnesiac is like being within the forest fire.
Amnesiac’s mood is much more claustrophobic and paranoid than its predecessor. This is made clear from the outset, as Yorke sings “I’m a reasonable man, get off my case”. And it’d say, it’s a much more intense, immersive and all-consuming listen. From the pulsating distorted beat on Pulk/Pull, to the cutting guitars on Knives Out, to the funereal jazz of the closing track, Life in a Glasshouse, Amnesiac takes you from agony to ecstasy and back again, warping your ears along the way. Amnesiac’s mood is one of paranoia, political unease and continually escalating tension.
Due to Kid A being released first, Amnesiac is often dwarfed in stature by its larger, more definitive older brother. The two albums were released eight months apart. This doesn’t mean that Amnesiac is merely a Kid A 2.0 however, rather, it stand son its own as a complete and separate work. Despite this, Amnesiac remains my favourite Radiohead album. When asked the difference between the two albums Yorke said “In some weird way, I think Amnesiac gives another take on Kid A, a form of explanation.” Elaborating on this, Bill Gibron writes in his article “The Art of Falling Apart that “In fact, the frontman would go on to explain that the first album was an accurate reflection of how he felt post-OK Computer‘s massive success, and that the follow-up was a way of sticking you in the middle of the fray and feeling every angst driven moment. In other words, Kid A was the art of falling apart, while Amnesiac was verification that said determined downward spiral was very deep indeed.
These albums also mean a lot to me personally. I found them before I ever had my own encounters with depression, but when these encounters inevitably came, I could point to their songs as examples of how I felt. I could point to the sonic vortex of these albums and convey something that I previously had no language for. The songs validated my feelings and made me feel less alone, and that’s all you can ask for from any art form at its apex.
Music has great power. Music enriches the human spirit and alleviates the brain of internal pressure and doubts. Music is a powerful tool, as has been shown by music’s power to unlock memories in the elderly with dementia and alzheimers. Music enriches our lives and we love it for good reason.Our musical brain is a thing to behold.
Yorke was asked during the press junkets for their 2003 album Hail to the Thief, “How does mental health impact your music?” He replied,
“One of the things for me, one of the things that I find most offensive about what people say about our music is when they say it’s depressing. The reason I find it offensive is that to me implies that to suffer from depression is like being sub normal, and it’s a stigma, and it shouldn’t because there’s an awful lot of people that suffer from depression and it shouldn’t be something that is like an ultimate swear word, because I suffer from it and a lot of people suffer from it, and um, it should be something that’s openly discussed and be accepted, and I happen to make music sometimes when I’m in that frame of mind because I suffer from it, but actually sometimes it’s not suffering, sometimes it’s a bonus, but sometimes it is a mental illness, and it means that I have empathy with other mental illnesses, because sometimes I feel that I’m close to certain things that could end up, you know, trap doors as I once called them that I could fall through. I really have a problem with people who dismiss art or music on the grounds that it’s depressing as a lot of creative power is from that feeling.”
And if anything is a testament to that statements truth and power, it is the albums that are forever conjoined at the hip yet are starkly different from one another, Kid A and Amnesiac.