By Brian Nemtusak
The breakdown sound track is a shadowy but genuine rock tradition that dates back at least to Pink Floyd's second album, A Saucerful of Secrets. That shimmering psychedelic classic is a better chronicle of Syd Barrett's acid-accelerated collapse than you'll find in any rock bio, despite Barrett's conspicuous absence from most of the album. On the closing track, "Jugband Blues," he puts in an appearance to make it explicit, mumbling his way through a jolly conversation with himself until the song dissolves into a single numb guitar strum and his chilling, affectless query to no one: "And what exactly is a dream? And what exactly is a joke?" After a couple fragmented solo efforts, he'd never be heard from again.
A decade later his usurper, Roger Waters, ruined by success and probably haunted by Barrett's pesky ghost, set a new standard for grandiose self-pity and solipsistic psychotheater with The Wall. With the same astonishing combination of acuity and presumption that characterized his takeover of the band, Waters folded echoes of Barrett's dissipation into the bombastic saga of his own withdrawal from the world and his subsequent dismemberment by personal demons. It's ludicrous yet deeply moving, painfully intimate and yet fundamentally phony. As The Wall ends Waters diagnoses himself merely sick--the album is a production number, a dramatization--but except for the exhausted epilogue of The Final Cut, he's done nothing even mediocre since.
By the following year--thanks to David Bowie, who'd killed off enough tragic personae to make insanity melodrama a rock convention--postpunk poses of disturbed emptiness were legion, leaving little room for outstanding achievement in the field of madness. But the philosopher-king of the breakdown genre had yet to be anointed. On May 18, 1980, Ian Curtis claimed the throne, hanging himself two months before the release of his obituary: Closer (a perfect title either way you pronounce it), Joy Division's second and last studio album, climaxes with "The Eternal," a song sung from a corpse's perspective. Against the band's clattering, whispering, mechanistic minimalism, Curtis's cold musings on life and death achieved a lucid, elegant algebra leading inexorably to zero. In context, his suicide was practically a ritual sacrifice, unsurpassed until Kurt Cobain's grand exit after In Utero.
Radiohead's new Kid A is Thom Yorke's ticket into this morbid pantheon. He's been working up to it for years: "Creep," the 1993 single that launched Radiohead's career, was a statement of self-loathing more dour and sarcastic than even "Smells Like Teen Spirit." "Fake Plastic Trees," the best-known song from the band's 1995 hospice-rock masterpiece, The Bends, describes a manufactured world peopled with hollow, weary automatons--a nice metaphor but also a classic schizophrenic delusion. And their 1997 breakthrough album, OK Computer, is one long bipolar roller-coaster ride through a dehumanizing crush of white noise, a garbled cry alloyed to the machine it accuses.
So how different could the actual breakdown sound? In short, very. Radiohead's brand of anxiety has been made listenable in the past by the interplay of Yorke's soaring vocals and the precise, sinuous guitar work of Jonny Greenwood. But on Kid A, the guitar has been banished almost entirely in favor of layered drones and stuttering tones, and Yorke's vocals are chopped into a thousand pieces and scattered across the mix, reducing him to a transparent wraith flitting above the processed architecture. This time the ride is a compressed spiral nosedive, lurching through one pressure drop after another, smashing down with immense weight and ripping away the floors. Yorke slides from low to lower, dying before our eyes, incorporating elements of his forebears' approaches into his dark-prince shtick. His anguish, like Waters's or Bowie's, is exceedingly deliberate--which isn't to say it's a put-on, but rather that he's a professional, able to wring the last drop of drama from each crisis. On the other hand, as with Barrett and Curtis, the self-involved arrogance inherent to the pose is made poignant by his almost comic inability to deal at all: In a pretty typical description of a performance, from a tour diary posted at www.greenplastic.com, he writes, "I feel fabulous. I feel like I've been plugged straight into the mains. Then, as I walk off at the end, I realise that I can hardly move and wonder in mild panic what I've done to myself. The whole world appears to be going in slow motion. The rest of the evening is hell and I can't bring myself to do anything but moan." Yorke seems to be one big raw nerve, perpetually corroded by a blizzard of stimuli.
Most disquieting, on Kid A there seems to be no context for his ongoing undoing. Yorke's usual suspects--technology, medicine, the media--are curiously absent from the flat wasteland of his fever dream. But the blunt vagueness of his complaint is the key to the experience, what transforms the last vestiges of his self-deprecating self-aggrandizement into a truly egalitarian misery. His obsessive focus on his pain finally excludes even himself as particular perceiving agent, opening the way for profound fanatical identification. He's just another brick in the wall, another soul in the hole, tearfully resisting extinguishment by age and routine, lamenting the unbridgeable isolation of consciousness and the incrementally decaying flesh cage that imprisons it.
The opening track, "Everything in Its Right Place," is a nervous insomniac overture that spends all its four minutes building to the start of a song that never begins. The title track is a denuded love letter to Kraftwerk and Japan, Yorke's unrecognizably muffled voice functioning like Mick Karn's bass against muted digital chimes and perversely upbeat beats, a dull blurry glow. On "The National Anthem," over an inappropriately danceable bass line Yorke moans, "Everyone is so near," then repeats "So alone" over and over. "How to Disappear Completely" is an epic of self-abnegation; abetted by Greenwood's plangent string arrangements, Yorke's doleful insistence that "I'm not here / This isn't happening" proclaims a delusional triumph--escape through disintegration. "Treefingers" references Fripp and Eno; the gorgeous "Optimistic" nods to Sonic Youth, then flows into "In Limbo," a delirious off-kilter swirl of arpeggiated rhythms whose circular lyrics ("I'm lost at sea / I've lost my way") confirm Yorke's shell-shocked retreat from the world. The hooky post-Aphex Twin excursion "Idioteque" is thunderingly desolate, a last hoarse scream into the wind--"Laugh until my head comes off / Swallow till I burst." Two more traditional numbers finish things out: the Roxy Music-like "Morning Bell" and the burbling, vaguely hopeful "Motion Picture Soundtrack," which concludes with a doff of the hat to Roger Waters: "I think you're crazy / Maybe."
Kid A is a mannerist triumph, distilling Radiohead into a deadly new concentration principally designed to make you cry. Yorke is more his inconsolable tragic self than ever--which may be just what his inconsolable, oversensitive audience chiefly requires of him. An odd commonality among the Radiohead fans I know--myself included--is that they were unable to take Kurt Cobain seriously until he killed himself, and only got into Nirvana (remorsefully) thereafter. The night Kid A came out, more than 100 people lined up on Milwaukee Avenue for a midnight release party at the Note, and no one seemed remotely disappointed by the new, more desperate sound. I suspect anything less fragile, jaundiced, or pessimistic would have been received as a disaster.