The One After is a new feature that will see Modern Vinyl writers taking on the album AFTER the peak. In other words, what did a band do to follow up their greatest record? How do you follow up “Blonde On Blonde?” What about “London Calling?” Did the artist build off their success, recoil from it, or land somewhere in between?
Radiohead’s OK Computer has sold 4.5 million copies worldwide since its release in 1997 and 20 years later, it regularly appears on lists of the greatest albums of all time. Signifying a landmark moment for the band who had incrementally built on the commercial and critical success of both Pablo Honey and The Bends, they would produce an album which is now widely regarded as one of the most important in the history of rock music 1
After the heights that OK Computer had scaled, how could Radiohead follow this up without their next record being viewed as simply an imitation or even a disappointment? The band decided that the only course of action was to throw out “the book,” totally reinventing their sound; a move that would ultimately lay down the foundations for the Radiohead we know and love today. Here, we look at “The One After”: Kid A.
Kid A, Radiohead’s fourth studio album, was released in October 2000 in unusual circumstances. The record contained no singles or music videos, while the band conducted only a handful of interviews and photoshoots with the press to promote its release 2. This was in stark contrast to OK Computer, which featured a string of hit singles like “Karma Police,” “Paranoid Android” and “No Surprises,” each accompanied by an iconic visual. After a grueling few years of non-stop touring and coping with the ensuing media circus, frontman Thom Yorke and his fellow band members were seemingly exhausted, needing both their music and marketing to take a different path.
Radiohead wanted fans and critics to embrace Kid A as a cohesive piece of art rather than simply a collection of singles, so they decided to leverage the growing power and popularity of the internet. Rather than using traditional marketing channels, they allowed their loyal fan base to embrace their new musical venture by streaming the tracks on Kid A three weeks before the album’s release via an embeddable web player called iBlip. The experiment was a roaring success, rewarding Radiohead with their first number one album on the U.S. chart, selling over 200,000 copies, while defining a new era of modern music promotion in the process. Grantland’s Steven Hyden, in 2005, described its spread:
Kid A was an anti-exclusive — a major music magazine was no more privileged than an obscure blogger when it came to showcasing the biggest alt-rock record of the year. Ultimately, at least 1,000 sites posted Kid A, and the album was streamed more than 400,000 times.
But the Kid A revolution didn’t stop with marketing. In terms of sound, OK Computer and Kid A couldn’t be further apart. The tracks on Kid A are almost exclusively electronic-based compositions or tight Krautrock-inspired songs which make use of looped instrumentation to provide textures and rhythms, rather than the guitar-based melodies found previously. In fact, the only track which appears on either album which isn’t immediately obvious as to where it belongs is the melancholy “How To Disappear Completely,” which could easily slot onto Computer between “Exit Music (For a Film)” and “Let Down.” However, rather than rehash their ‘90s guitar sound on their fourth album, the band decided that experimentation would allow for them to stay innovative and relevant in the 21st century. Songs like “Treefingers” and the title track are serene ambient passages, which contrast perfectly with the looped, heavy bassline on “The National Anthem” and the crunching beats on the wonderful “Idioteque.”
Thom Yorke’s lyrics differ vastly, as well, when compared to any of Radiohead’s previous work. Due to his newly developed writer’s block 3, Yorke took a much more abstract approach to his songwriting process, as many of the lyrics which appear on Kid A are the result of hours spent cutting up words to assemble random lines and phrases. Kid A thus feels like an album more concerned with exploring the broad themes of fear, isolation and loneliness rather than articulating specific feelings, as had previously been the case. On “Idioteque,” Yorke conjures up an apocalyptic vision of nuclear disaster and melting ice caps, a sensation they continue to touch on today (the video for “Daydreaming” in particular) while feeling more real than ever given recent developments in world politics. “Everything In Its Right Place” deals with themes of confusion and depression, with Yorke repeating “Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon” over and over again on one of the track’s verses. And on “In Limbo” Yorke explores his own feelings of anxiety and isolation, singing, “I’m lost at sea/Don’t bother me/I’ve lost my way.”
There’s no doubt that Kid A carved out a new sound for Radiohead which they would exploit in part on each of their subsequent five studio albums. Tracks like “15 Step” from 2007’s In Rainbows and “Lotus Flower” from 2011’s King of Limbs simply wouldn’t exist without the electronic experimentation pioneered here. That differing sound pairs nicely with the opening of a new world of internet-based music promotion, now considered the norm. Whether or not Kid A is a “better” record than OK Computer is entirely a matter of opinion, but it is most certainly an important album for both Radiohead and modern contemporary music.