In a way, it was such a gamble. How could a band like Radiohead follow up their 1997 album, OK Computer, which was hailed by some to be one of the greatest albums ever recorded? What musical move would they make next after reaching the heights of becoming arguably the best rock band ever? That’s easy; make an even better album, with more experimentation, that is received by an equally large audience.
Not that this album was “easy” for Radiohead to release: Thom Yorke experienced depression and writer’s block under so much pressure. But regardless of the details of process, what they came up with in Kid A is a masterpiece. I experience it as so much more than an album, but as an event.
Although it is not a concept album per se, it seems to spark a dialogue between the real and the illusion; the true and the false; the human and the machine. Kid A may even be referring to a human clone, though Yorke insists there is no specific story or concept driving this album. Either way, the title suggests someone stripped of the humanity that comes with having a name. And how appropriate, as listening we attempt (unsuccessfully sometimes) to decipher what is human and what is machine throughout Kid A.
I have begun listening to this album so many times these last few weeks. The first time, my iPod decided it needed a charge; Other times I simply mis-judged the time I had before other plans or commitments, and was forced to interrupt myself. Finally today as I walked, skytrained, and walked some more, I was able to make it from Everything in its Right Place all the way to Motion Picture Soundtrack. Here is my Kid A experience.
Instantly I’m introduced to the fine line between the use of human voice and mechanized voice, as vocals are distorted right from the start. Yet as if coaxing us to stick with him, he lets us know that Everything’s In Its Right Place. The title track continues the voice distortion, far before the vocoder became every pop artist’s favorite toy, and meanwhile a glockenspiel gives the track a sense of eerie playfulness. Kid A feels as though we have lost gravity, and yet a solid foundation is maintained through solid beat, and is not far from our feet; as if we’re floating, but it’s not terribly dangerous.
It’s clear by The National Anthem that the sonic intricacies are calling my attention far above any interesting train companion or view. Can I also mention that any national anthem that includes a Bari Sax honking out is one that makes me feel very patriotic. Unfortunately, I don’t know what country (or planet!) I should be proud of. Perhaps I can consider it a universal-national anthem. All the horn parts on this track remind me of either/both Charlie Mingus and/or Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz. As the overblown cadence draws the anthem to a close, a faint recording of an old band reminds us of what a more stereotypical style of patriotic music might sound like.
The next two tracks combined seem to draw me into an entirely different dimension of time or space. In some ways this track sounds more familiar, more closely linked to Ok Computer songs like Exit Music for a Film, Let Down, or even Karma Police. Still, the song finds itself still more pensive beneath electronically layered sounds. The vocals on How to Disappear Completely sound more human than anything so far, yet his clear lyrics are saying “I’m not here” and “this isn’t happening”.
I find myself sinking deeper into my psyche and finding the ancient philosophical conundrum: how can we be sure of what is real? How do we know we’re not just dreaming all the time? The strings build this question into a climax of cries, while the slow waltz-like rhythm rocks me as if to comfort my questioning mind. And then Treefingers is simply present, with no sense of time at all. I’m suspended, and if anywhere I feel as though I’m underwater. I half expect to see the outside world with brand new eyes.
In Optimistic I recognize that we have made quite the departure from Everything in its Right Place’s line, “yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon” to more, well, optimistic lyrics like, “try the best you can, the best you can is good enough”. And although Optimistic fades out, it only does so as it foreshadows the In Limbo guitar riff, and In Limbo slides in as if it is the second movement of the same piece, though not quite as optimistic in tone.
Actually, this whole album feels as if it works as one piece. Each track could be seen as a movement that explores different aspects of sound and thought, but in the end they all go together. This could explain why none of the albums songs was really considered a single. With the possible exception of the next track.
There is certainly something special about Idioteque. I wonder if music can have three dimensions, as I find sounds sneaking up behind me, while others face me head on and fearless. Still others kindly tap me on the shoulder to let me know they’re standing beside me. And all of that over a drum machine! I find myself trying to imagine a group dance choreographed by Sonya on So You Think You Can Dance. Oh man, I hope that becomes a reality! That thought (and perhaps the meter in 5 on Morning Bell) put an extra bounce in my step.
The conclusion of the album with Motion Picture Soundtrack offers a brand new instrumentation. Beginning with organ and voice, I imagine I arrive at a dramatic funeral on another planet. Slowly, the track has sweeping harp lines and eventually a distant operatic voice. Repeating, “I think you’re crazy, maybe” over and over, I wonder if I am. Has this album played a trick on me? I wonder if I’ve somehow entered a psychological thriller, and I have no idea what’s about to happen. The track plays on for a few minutes in silence, only to be interrupted with a short return of suspended notes.
Kid A is an album I will return to repeatedly and ask new questions of each time. It has even been listed by many notable critics as the number one album of the decade. I can certainly see why, although there are three more albums that seem to have embedded themselves even deeper into my own heart…
Hands down the best album of 2008. Hands way down. It’s an album with a unique mood and timbre that makes my living room smell like the woods when I listen to it on vinyl. The folky guitar lines and full, high male harmonies make me want to put on flannel and eat spinach at the same time. If you have not yet listened to the Fleet Foxes on a proper vinyl record, please consider this your invitation to join me on a foggy day at Chalet de Brie (this is the name of my house). Something about this record sounds simultaneously old-fashioned and like nothing I’ve ever heard before. And I swear the crackles of dust enhance the entire experience.
I must admit, this listmas thing has become more of a challenge than I ever expected. And although I am fully enjoying the listening and writing that is the process of blogging, I know that I cannot do the Fleet Foxes justice. Also, as contradictory as this sounds, though Fleet Foxes are best heard on vinyl, they are also best listened to in a moving vehicle. Yes, I do know turntables are rather stationary, and that this makes no sense, but just go with me for a second. If you can’t give all your attention to the album, in a setting that would ideally include blankets, hot beverages, and a well-stoked fire, one must have the album be the soundtrack to beautiful British Columbia, in all of it’s big green splendor passing by your window. Seriously, you should try both sometime.
What I am trying to say here, is that I am not going to blog this album song by song, but instead make these two suggestions: play it on your way home from somewhere in daylight (at least a 40 minute drive), or come over. I promise one day I will blog about this album in a more in-depth way – hopefully from the point of view of a road-trip passenger – but until then, it must make a brief appearance to accept the honor of receiving my personal award of the fifth best album released between 2000 and 2009.
It’s true that Takk…’s lyrics are mostly translatable, having been written primarily in Icelandic as opposed to the band’s made up language of Vonlenska favored on the earlier album, (). (There are several moments when Birgisson breaks into the scatted combination of English, Icelandic, and Gibberish, but I personally can’t tell the difference anyway.) However, I’d rather not bother with translation because apart of the beauty for me listening to Sigur Ros is in not understanding their words. I experience the vocals far more like a breathy solo instrument. In fact, it’s not even always as the primary soloing instrument, but one of many adding to the texture of the piece. And so, the only word that needs translation from this album is the title itself: Takk means thank you.
There is a certain amount of energy that is kept up throughout the album until “Advari”, which plays more like a lullaby, and Takk… retains this mellower sound through to the end (even when “Svo Hljott” gets huge with sound it feels rather sleepy). That’s ok by me though, as I’ve returned home to warm my circulation-challenged fingers and toes. I watch the world fade to darkness from the heated side of the window, curled up in blankets. It’s as though my Takk… experience was only a dream, and it has coaxed me back to sleep only to wake up to a more familiar reality. All this time we have been searching the backs of our closets for secret entrances, when all we needed to do was put Takk… on the stereo.
Somehow I can’t believe this album came out this decade, it feels so long ago! It is so far my earliest album on the list, and like Hot Fuss has a particularly nostalgic effect on me. Without a doubt, Coldplay has been one of the most successful bands of the Ohsies, releasing four single-packed LP’s starting in 2000 with Parachutes, and completing the era with Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends in 2008. With no hints that they’ll be stopping anytime soon, Coldplay could very well go on to be the next U2 and find themselves in the mainstream for another 20 years or more, like it or not.
But band history and predictions aside, let’s listen to the album at hand. I’m not sure how much I’m being influenced by the artwork on the cover when I say this, but I find that Politik has me dreaming in black and white. The song seems to state the boundaries in entering dialogue with the album. “Give me time and give me space, give me real, don’t give me fake…” And to the rhythm of the whole band pounding out 8th notes between every verse I put some breakfast together, heeding the call to open up my eyes (or ears as the case may be). And like a good introduction, a hint of the conclusion rounds off the first track with the beautiful line, “but give me love over this”.
I’m finishing up eating and sit with my cup of coffee as In My Place, which is a very good song for drinking coffee, because a good cup of joe makes me feel quite comfortable wherever I may be. My only complaint is that I ran out of milk, so I used soy beverage instead. I should have had it black. I’m going to sit and enjoy this song before I start in on the many “to-do’s” on my list.
Dishes are done to God Put A Smile Upon Your Face. This has often been my favorite track on the album, and I can remember listening to this in my old office at the church in New Westminster as I attempted to plan ridiculous games for teenagers. Somehow the song would be a reminder to give everyone a chance to be great, because “when you work it out, I’m worse than you…” I’m still not so great at that though.
And although The Scientist has become the dreaded piano line that everyone learns to play because of it’s simple chords, I will always remember it as what made me fall in love with Coldplay in the first place. Before ever buying the whole album, I actually went out and paid for a single of this song. (Yes I went out, and bought a cd with only 3 songs on it! These were the years before the iTunes store was something I had discovered). Full of grief and longing, and closely connected in my brain to the haunting music video. And as a note, the pictures in my head are all in black in white, even though the video was shot if colour. Don’t ask me to explain that.
Even though we are 7 years later, I still react to Clocks like an overplayed song. I guess this is one of the downsides to listening to albums from a period when I still spent a great deal of time listening to the radio. Even when the song began to fall from the heights of radio-play, it was used it countless movies and trailers, and later even other songs! I’m not sure I can ever again be not sick of this song. Strangely though, I realize as I’m singing along to the bridge (“nothing else compares…”) that it’s the first time I’ve opened my mouth and sung, even though I’m the only one home.
When Daylight begins, I’m half expecting colour pictures to emerge in my head, but they don’t until Green Eyes. There is something about this song that feels green, far beyond the eyes in discussion. Maybe it’s the acoustic guitar that I feel like I’ve been waiting for. As I’m moving around the kitchen, attempting to clean some mystery items out of the fridge, I make two discoveries. 1) There is beer. At the back of the fridge. I was so sure we were out. 2) There is milk! In the door! I run to the sink, dump out the dregs of my soy-tainted coffee and start grinding some beans for a second try.
I wait for the coffee to brew and sort my recycling as I croon along to Warning Sign, another former favorite track. So sentimental and regretful, and it’s pretty easy to sing lines like “I miss you so,” in a big empty house.
All of Rush of Blood tends to be very image-full for me. The title track clearly brings to mind two moments from cinema. The first is fairly obvious: What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, when the whole album sits outside on the couch watching their family home burn down. The second is related by theme: in Forest Gump when Jenny is found throwing rocks at the house where she grew up. Both are statements of love, revenge, justice, and simply moving forward out of pain and sorrow. This song for me is like a really good monologue that paints a picture not only of the speaking character, but the implied 2nd person. In other news, my coffee is much better now.
The fact that Coldplay named their album for this song suggests we look at all the songs through this lens. The album itself is carefully crafted, and far more than just a product of a “rush of blood to the head”. Yet, each moment on the album is a product of great passion and tends to build up a bit of a rush for the listener. Ultimately, the album seems to ask me a question: What will I do with my passion? What does any of my anger or love or empathy or sadness accomplish at all, until I decide to do something about it?
And as if Chris expected me to get to this place, Amsterdam comes as a word of encouragement, even if I can’t help but question whether there’s a note of sarcasm: “time is in on your side… it’s no cause for concern…” Is there time? And if there is, what’s worth it? Big questions and good questions, as any great album should ask. Which is exactly what A Rush of Blood to the Head is.
So now it is officially official: I am behind. Christmas Day was a lot more tiring than I thought it would be, and blogging was simply not an option at the end of it. Have no fear though, the list will go on, and if I must I will spend all of New Year’s Day counting down to #1.
Although I knew quite early that this would make my list, I haven’t had the chance to listen to it straight through in the last month, so tonight after work I listened, sitting on my bed, drinking lemon ginger tea (because for Christmas, I got a cold) as I wrote this blog. My first thought as I began was remembering a conversation I recently had with my niece. She insisted that Timbaland’s real name is “Justin Timberland”, just like Justin Timberlake. I don’t think she can fully tell the two apart! And why should she be able to, with the incredible partnership they built up on this album?
Another Song is very far from where we began FutureSex/LoveSounds, but one that was made by a journey of transitions. Just as each track is crafted to perfection, the album is shaped in such a way that I do want to put the album on all over again to see just how they did it. However, I have 7 more albums to listen to, so a repeat will have to wait.