At the end of the 90s, after Radiohead's 1997 album OK Computer sold 4.5 million copies worldwide and won a Grammy and loads of other accolades, skyrocketing the band to a stratospheric level of fame and cred, Thom Yorke called R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe. Yorke was unhappy. The attention, the cacophony—even if in the form of acclaim—was driving him mad.
"I rang him and said, 'I cannot cope with this,'” Yorke told Rolling Stone in 2000. "And he said, 'Pull the shutters down and keep saying, ‘I’m not here, this is not happening.'”
That conversation inspired "How to Disappear Completely," a haunting ode to dissociation on the band's weird, beloved, and critically worshipped album Kid A, released four years after OK Computer and 20 years ago this week. For Yorke, the turn of the millennium felt like a wonderful time to crawl into a hole and tune out until the nightmare passed. The appeal of that fantasy is still very real.
It feels almost too obvious to write anything glowing or even nostalgic about Kid A. We get it, you're thinking. It's seminal or whatever. Pitchfork infamously gave it a perfect 10. It ends up on every list of the best albums of the 00s, the century, or all time. What more could be said about it? But as long as we live in a state of existential anxiety, technology-fueled melancholy, and late-capitalism burnout, there will be something to say about Kid A. And right now, many of us are checking all three of those boxes.
Listening to it now, it's hard to fathom that this complex fractal of an album dropped at a time when Limp Bizkit, Creed, Kid Rock, Sisqo, and Britney Spears dominated the airwaves (the Billboard Top 200 from 2000 was probably even more insipid than most of us remember). With its experimental arrangements and Turing-test lyrics, Kid A was Radiohead's escape pod from the sinking ship of Big Alt Rock and the turn-of-the-millennium radio-hit gold rush, when greedy label execs lined their pockets with the spoils from highly manufactured pop and rap-rock, bleeding artists creativity and financially dry. Yorke felt that there was no escaping the plastic and puppeteered aspects of the record industry—in fact, they only seemed to get worse.
"Lots of really talented artists are being thrown by the wayside," Yorke told the New Yorker in 2001. "They are not being given the time of day, because they're not doing things that fit the moment […] In the long run, the industry wants to make money, but if a company wants to make money then it has to take a risk. These people don't take risks. They make quick money and then that's it. And the world isn't a nicer place for it."
OK Computer had been an ambitious album, with Yorke and guitarist Jonny Greenwood pulling from a diverse array of influences: Miles Davis, Brian Eno, krautrock, prog. Because the record lacked the "Van Halen factor," as bassist Colin Greenwood put it, their label, Capitol, set its sales expectations low and grumbled over the seeming lack of marketable singles, only to be blown out of the water by its success. Despite all of the effort the band put into its artistry, OK Computer was still reduced to numbers and dollar signs in the end.
Yorke felt stuck: In his free time, he was attending May Day protests and denouncing the white-collar crimes of international banks, but that just caused the media to sneer at his 'Champagne socialist' leanings. As far as the band was concerned, making an unapologetically inaccessible album was the only appropriate act of mutiny.
While OK Computer was dystopian and glitchy, it was still distinctly rock; Kid A bore no resemblance to anything that could possibly end up on TRL. A mashup of melodic experimental rock, electronica, and alien jazz, it felt like a piece of space debris that had fallen from the sky, tangible but unrecognizable. From the opening notes of "Everything in Its Right Place"—a downcast synth melody that sounded like booting up a strange old device, or the THX sound effect made into a creepy yet calming hymn—it plays more like a succession of sonic feeling-states than a neatly wrapped package of songs. The eclectic influence of Aphex Twin, Alice Coltrane, and early computer music, as well as Jonny Greenwood's affinity for unconventional combinations of instruments and electronic effects, enjoy free rein throughout. The album artwork depicts an icy, sinister, vaguely CGI-looking mountainscape, a place as cold and untouchable as Britney Spears' navel was tantalizing. In summary, Kid A was the opposite of everything in music that was making money at the time.
Yet Kid A is a captivating listen, one with an incredible range of emotion and surprises around every turn. It has gleaming, ambient interludes, such as the title track, which obscures its hushed, terrifying lyrics ("We've got heads on sticks / You've got ventriloquists / Standing in the shadows at the end of my bed") in twinkling keys and distant pulsing. That otherworldly peacefulness is impaled by jarring moments like "The National Anthem," in which the album dissolves into a state of raw funk entropy where a din of horns assaults listeners to the point of near-insanity. You can sink into the dissociative lullaby of "How to Disappear Completely" and bliss out to "Treefingers," another understated intermission of quiet minimalism. But any time you get too comfortable, too relieved, something ominous seems to lurk around the corner—be it the frenetic, modular beat of cult favorite "Idioteque," or the off-kilter nursery rhyme "Morning Bell," in which Yorke croons "Cut the kids in half" over and over. Kid A offers exactly one song appropriate for mainstream airplay ("Optimistic"), and it all closes with an untitled aural starburst that, in retrospect, sounds suspiciously like the not-yet-written Wii menu music.
Initially pegged a "commercial suicide note" by confused commentators who had been hoping for another "Creep" or "Karma Police," it received some truly terrible reviews; British music mag Mojo dismissed it as "just awful," and the terms "frustrating" and "head-scratching" appearing in several early analyses. But in the weeks before its release, fans had already been sharing pirated copies and live bootlegs on Napster, fawning over the material in forums and AOL chat rooms. Music geeks gleefully dissected its samples and cryptic lyrics, and as it flew up the charts, critics began to realize that Radiohead was probably doing something quite genius, even if they were all too nü-metal-poisoned and stupid to fully decode it. One by one, they took a knee and declared it a masterpiece. The New Yorker called its unlikely ascent to No. 1 on Billboard "a demolition of conventional wisdom."
Theories abound about whether Kid A is a concept album, because it feels like a soundtrack—the backdrop to an imagined film warning of our descent into an isolating, pre-apocalyptic society, like Black Mirror a decade and a half before the fact. But as the band tells it, any semblance of a cohesive narrative was intentional.
"The mistake is to assume we had that level of a plot," Yorke told Rolling Stone. "Unfortunately, we had no plot. We had fifty things on a blackboard, and we just kept throwing them out and adding more. We kept driving everybody crazy." In this respect, Kid A is Radiohead's most punk rock album despite having no punk rock whatsoever to its aesthetics—a disorienting journey into the unknown that still feels like a gorgeous mystery today.
As such, it seemed like a journey into the inner workings of an anxious mind: pulsing with mania, swelling into stretches of beautiful melancholia, veering into a bit of dark humor here and there, and sometimes, mercifully dissolving into a pregnant emptiness. The New York Times deemed it "an album about loneliness so profound it threatens to dissolve identity itself." If OK Computer is the band's surprisingly poppy panic attack, Kid A, especially in moments like the gentle opening notes of "How to Disappear Completely" and the grim, suicidal beauty of "Motion Picture Soundtrack,"is the eerie sense of acceptance that follows.
At the time of its creation, there was much to be anxious about. According to Yorke, the now-iconic demonic cartoon bear from Kid A's album artwork was inspired by reading stories about genetically modified food—a new technology that distressed many people at the time, even if they weren't sure why. "We got obsessed with the idea of mutation entering the DNA of the human species," Yorke said. "One episode was about these teddy bears that mutate and start eating children. It was this running joke, which wasn’t really funny. But in our usual way, it addressed a lot of our paranoias and anxieties." This was a time of mad cow disease; tumultuous elections and shifts of power in the US, Middle East, and Europe; and the first terrifying seconds of Y2K, when we were all worried that the power grid would fail and our bank accounts would empty, catapulting us into total societal downfall. Oil prices were soaring, tech stocks failing. Kid A seemed to be written for the people who longed to, as Stipe suggested, pull the shutters down.
Then and now, it would be foolish to think that things couldn't get any worse. Just one year after Kid A, there would be 9/11, and then in the years that followed there would be more terrorist attacks, and then a while later ebola would come back, and then some years after that, during a particularly harrowing stretch, several of our most beloved music visionaries would die in quick succession and some really awful leaders would be elected, until eventually, we'd find ourselves here, squirreled away in our homes, glued to screens optimized to track and sell our thoughts, venturing out only in masks, frightened to even hug our friends. We'd be living in a world where only the McDonald's drive-thru feels safe, or a box of Nature Valley trail mix bars delivered straight to your door by an underpaid Amazon worker.
There has never been a time more worrying, never a moment where more of us feel lonely. Even if we do find relief from one debacle or another, there will always be another monster hanging around the corner; the same sinister elements of capitalism that pitted sexually exploited teen pop stars against JNCOS-wearing men who did it all for the nookie have brought us here. As Yorke told an interviewer back in 2000, "Things never really die—they just go around."
The American Psychological Association defines anxiety as "an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure. It describes those who suffer from it as having "recurring intrusive thoughts or concerns"—as people who may even "avoid certain situations out of worry." But who could look around right now and not worry? In 2020, anxiety is no longer an intrusive disorder, but a lifestyle we have no choice but to accept.
Radiohead frequently references George Orwell in their music, a man who, too, seemed both horrified and fascinated by the unknowns of the future and the trajectories leading us there. “It is a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out," he wrote in his 1933 memoir Down and Out in Paris and London. "You have talked so often of going to the dogs—and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off a lot of anxiety.” So here are the dogs. Thank god we have the proper soundtrack for our current moment; we actually got it 20 years early.
Now, if you don't mind, I'd like to pull down the shades and disappear completely.
Hilary Pollack is the deputy culture editor at VICE. Follow her on Twitter here.