You've got to be kidding

Hardly any guitars. Very little singing. Free-form jazz. Doesn't sound like Radiohead... And a good thing too, says Andy Gill
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The Independent Culture

Having replaced REM as the favoured token indie band du jour in those pointless Best Albums Of All Time polls that seem to pop up every other week, Radiohead's new album could be said to bear the mantle of Most Eagerly Awaited Follow-Up Of All Time (or this month, at least). Being apparently the only person (apart from the band themselves) who considers OK Computer to be possibly the Most Overrated Album Of All Time, I confess I was rather less eager in my awaiting than most - which makes my approbation upon eventually hearing Kid A all the more unforeseen. Most Pleasantly Surprising Album Of All Time? Well, it's some kind of commendation - though perhaps not quite the one the band were aiming for.

Having replaced REM as the favoured token indie band du jour in those pointless Best Albums Of All Time polls that seem to pop up every other week, Radiohead's new album could be said to bear the mantle of Most Eagerly Awaited Follow-Up Of All Time (or this month, at least). Being apparently the only person (apart from the band themselves) who considers OK Computer to be possibly the Most Overrated Album Of All Time, I confess I was rather less eager in my awaiting than most - which makes my approbation upon eventually hearing Kid A all the more unforeseen. Most Pleasantly Surprising Album Of All Time? Well, it's some kind of commendation - though perhaps not quite the one the band were aiming for.

Because even allowing for the spiky, convoluted nature of some of their earlier work, Kid A is liable to sorely test the sonic palate of Radiohead's core fan base - to destruction, in some cases. A determinedly experimental outing, it's as indefensible in pop terms as, say, Pink Floyd's Meddle or King Crimson's Larks' Tongues In Aspic, prog-rock predecessors which also managed to combine a questing non-commercial spirit with chart success. It's more a diversionary tactic than the follow-up you'd get by plotting their previous three albums on a graph and extrapolating to October 2000.

For a guitar band, there are precious few bouts of guitar pyrotechnics. For one of rock's more distinctive voices, Thom Yorke does little untreated singing. And while the lyric themes are largely similar to those of OK Computer - alienation, isolation, and the struggle to secure one's own place in the world - Kid A gives off the impression of being more an instrumental album to which words have adhered almost accidentally. Rather than songs as we've come to understand them, with verses, choruses and middle eight proceeding in orderly manner from introduction to resolution, these 10 tracks are more like exercises in the emotional weight of sound in space, comparable to more avant-garde undertakings - from the pure, subtle tonalities of Eno's ambient pieces at one extreme, to the sheer transcendent thrill of the furthest-out free-jazz at the other.

In a nutshell, it's Radiohead's Tusk, their equivalent of the album with which Fleetwood Mac sloughed off the crippling expectations engendered by their zillion-selling AOR masterpieces of the Seventies. As you'd expect from a band whose contact address features a Thomas Pynchon reference, the tone of Kid A is dark and guarded, with a distinct undertow of paranoia. Following a tentative, amorphous opener in which Yorke tries to keep "Everything In Its Right Place", the melancholy title-track's wheedling, semi-mechanistic vocal finds him hiding from "the shadows at the foot of my bed" - a mood developed further in "The National Anthem", as he realises "Everyone around here/Everyone is so near/Everyone is so feared". In an album marked by a certain diffidence, this track offers the most compelling musical statement, building from a foreboding intro as electronic noise and found-sounds gradually accrete around the declarative bass and drum parts, joined in turn by baritone sax, trombone, and ultimately the entire eight-piece Hook Horns, under whose collective power the piece concludes with the kind of caterwauling jazz rave-up with which Sun Ra once captivated rock audiences.

As if to escape such frantic activity, "How To Disappear Completely" applies a "Space Oddity" combination of acoustic guitar and ambient whine to Thom Yorke's self-abnegating lyric. "That there, that's not me," he claims, "I go where I please - I walk through walls, I float down the Liffey. I'm not here, this isn't happening." It's as direct a rejection of the shackles of public perception as you'll hear all year, and appropriately, Yorke has indeed disappeared completely for the ensuing "Treefingers", whose gently looming, shimmering tones are akin to Eno's Music For Films pieces, though less descriptive.

There is, as I mentioned earlier, less guitar than you'd expect on Kid A; and indeed, "Optimistic", the closest the group comes here to formal guitar-rock structures, is the least "natural" piece on the album, a surly, jagged wall of gunmetal-grey grunge chording in stark contrast to the subtler textures that surround it. More indicative of the band's own current musical interests, perhaps, is "Idioteque", on which they employ two sampled fragments of "serious" electronic pieces by Paul Lansky and Arthur Kreiger.

Certainly, by the time the pump-organ and cascading harp glissandi of "Motion Picture Soundtrack" bring the album to a close, Radiohead have done more than enough to redefine their territory in terms no longer bounded simply by six strings. Hardcore 'head fans may find less here to hum than usual, but those with more outré interests could find the new-style Radiohead rather more to their liking.

Radiohead's 'Kid A' is released on Monday on Parlophone

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