If you think of Radiohead's new Kid A as a sort of continuation of the sentence that begins, "OK, computer ..." the record makes perfect sense, as though the band had sat down around a conference table with The Computer and held an arbitration session, pleading and arguing with the machine, trying to reason with it, convince it to agree to some sort of compromise -- and talked and talked and talked, with blinds pulled and the jittery fluorescent lights beaming as the day passed into night, the nights into months, as all sense of time morphed into a sort of chrono-slug. Radiohead, the guitar band, the band with the ability to concentrate a brick of energy inside guitars, bass drums and Thom Yorke's magical voice, spending months with the computer, locked in a dust-free room until the pink and blue and green and red had turned into that weird beige-gray and no longer was it clear whether the sun or moon was up or whether the band was the computer or the computer was the band. "I've lost myself," sings Thom Yorke on "In Limbo," halfway through the record. And because of what's surrounding him -- or not surrounding him -- there's little doubt he's nearly gone.
That's the sound of Kid A, the sound of Radiohead being funneled through a computer and vice versa: Those melodies are still there, as are those questions, those concerns, those standard Radiohead tones and structures. But they're different -- an obvious appreciation for beauty, an examination of it inside different sounds. It's not really what you'd expect from a band whose mastery of the rock song went unequaled through much of the '90s, but it's most definitely not a Metal Machine Music fuck-you (as Nick Hornby suggested in last week's New Yorker, referencing Lou Reed's 1975 feedback-fest). Those, like Hornby, without a reference point may at first be baffled by many of the songs on Kid A, specifically those that aren't "Optimistic" or "How to Disappear Completely," the two songs that most closely resemble 20th-century Radiohead; they'll be lost in the whirlpool of freaky sounds and structures, confused by Thom Yorke's synthesized tongue, the electro beats and the huge aural washes that consume songs whole. You need a context.
Many assessments of the record have suggested the band has made a "post-rock" record; others have called it an electronic rock record. But Kid A is really more a computer record, the same way the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper was a studio record; whereas the latter was produced after months on end spent inside a studio, unleashing the power of the then-new recording technology, the former was produced after months spent inside a computer inside a studio, searching for the boundaries inside the box. Call it what you want; all that matters is that it's a really cool record, one that tethers its rope to an unsecured buoy. There's a center, though it's impossible to say what it is. But the way in which the record floats from idea to idea and from structure to structure, seemingly lost but not really because of its ability to retain a beautiful cohesion throughout, is remarkable, especially for a band that's learning a new language.
Superficially, Kid A seems self-indulgent -- Sergeant Pepper certainly was. Where are the hooks, the riffs? But the record is really the picture of restraint; given the multitude of sonic possibilities in the making of computer music (doubters are directed to Revolve Records on Delmar; pop on a pile of techno 12-inches and then shut up), the wide-open spaces and the oft-lean landscapes Radiohead has constructed are awe-inspiring. They could have piled effects on top of effects on top of effects and created a mess, as most fledgling computer composers do. They didn't, and after a few servings you'll come to realize that the record's not "difficult"; any song that contains a melody -- and only a couple don't -- lays it right there before you and concentrates on it for the duration of the song. It's how they address these melodies that's new.
Radiohead: One song, "Creep," built in a world that had just gone gaga for "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and "Loser," puts them on the map. They subsequently tour with their idols, R.E.M.; create one of the five best rock records of the '90s, The Bends; follow that with another one of the weirdest, best rock records of the '90s, OK Computer; release a documentary that is one of the most disorienting and brilliant ever made about a rock & roll band, Meeting People Is Easy. All of a sudden, Radiohead is Important, and critics burden them with the notion that it's up to the band to save rock & roll.
But how do you save a corpse? Answer: You don't. You follow your curiosities without thinking about grand statements or profound thoughts, because they're usually transparent and ultimately tiny. Ask U2, who tried and failed most colossally on '97's Pop to merge the computer-based and the guitar-based; it was a failure because they attempted to integrate electronic dance music into rock rather than creating something uniquely both; R.E.M. attempted a similar merger on '98's Up but fell short because the listener never got the idea that they truly cared for, were bowled over by, electronic music and therefore approached it more as a curio than as an inevitability. Coming from the opposite camp, dance masters the Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim funnel rock into house and do it quite well; techno-geek Moby's Play is a remarkable example of melding the past and the future into a kind of present. But Radiohead has discovered a sound that is neither and both. Were they to simply toss in some breakbeats behind their rock songs, add a drum & bass riff here and a techno breakdown in the middle over there, Kid A would have failed.
But they found the delicate, elusive line, the line that understands parody and rip-off and knows when not to breach it, that understands why the Rolling Stones' Emotional Rescue was such a pathetic attempt by a great band to appropriate disco, a sound they didn't understand or, it seems, even like all that much; that understands that there's a way to experiment and acknowledge without pooping out a parody. And the only way to succeed in such an endeavor is through total immersion: Locking yourself in a room with a computer and coming to appreciate that the potential inside the plastic is a different sort of potential, with different strengths and weaknesses, with wider parameters and curious quirks. To succeed in this world, you have to live inside it, and it's a dry and lonely place. But then, when you step outside that gray-beige room, the colors reappear, as do the moisture and the fresh new world, and what was once a load of ones and zeroes has been magically transformed into blues, greens, reds and yellows; the sunlight is brilliant; and the sounds are gorgeous. "I've lost myself," sings Yorke, then continues: "It's beautiful."