Radiohead has always been good at this. The quintet first garnered airplay and notoriety by riding Kurt Cobain's coattails with the radio-friendly alterna-anthem "Creep" off 1993's Pablo Honey. Had you pegged them as another gaggle of angst-ridden cretins, you'd have been right for exactly one decent (if predictable) song. The boys proved too slippery for that, shucking a lot of frat-type fans as they plunged further into the mind of lead singer Thom Yorke on 1995's The Bends. Even though the music got deep, the guitars were still loud and edgy, and commercial success didn't seem an impossibility. Three years later OK Computer was by turns an impenetrable concept album, a solid rocker, inscrutably weird, and a huge seller.
So the easiest thing for the band to do would have been to put out OK Computer II. Kid A, Radiohead's eagerly awaited new disc, is a lot of things, but an encore ain't one of 'em. This disc takes us further into Yorke's head than many (probably most) want to go. And more important it's a step away from guitar pop toward... toward what? That's where things get blurry.
The first track, "Everything in Its Right Place," is a little synthesizer toss-off that serves mainly as a declaration that this isn't going to be more of the same. The disc's strongest offering, "The National Anthem," kicks off with a fat, funked-up bass line that hangs tight through groovy electronic meanderings that must sound like what astronauts hear in their helmets during a space walk. Just when your head starts bobbing to the beat, Yorke pipes in with his obtuse non sequiturs, while a demented horn section turns the disjointed jam into a Dixieland-style improvisation. It's a rocker with nary a guitar to be heard anywhere, just like they did it in the old days. Except they called it "jazz."
"Optimistic" is the only song that could have been lifted off a previous Radiohead record. In it you can almost hear the band's label pleading, "Come on guys, can't you give us just one radio-friendly tune?"
Kid A isn't great the way OK Computer was great. But it is mighty different and stands proud as proof that pop can still be vital in the right hands.