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Back in the early ’90s, bored to distraction and alienated from our labor, a fellow employee-benefits analyst and I used to sit with the door closed and “conference.” We were really talking about music. Who knows what launches such vagaries, but one thing we imagined was this: What if Olivier Messiaen were the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll?

Now we know.

And it’s a more felicitous, if not quite happier, development than we could have foreseen. There are also times on Radiohead’s spacey, atmospheric, arenaphobic, keyboard-heavy magnum opus, Kid A, when the scepter passes to John Cage or Charles Mingus or György Ligeti or, less surprisingly, Brian Eno (sporting his ambient ermines, naturally). But the music is still Radiohead, and it’s still rock, however thoroughly it absorbs its chosen out-sounds. Rock has always been a synthetic, syncretic music, and now that it has received the imperative to reinvent itself, its continued viability may depend on calling in the right reinforcements.

Apropos of OK Computer, which he kind of liked, another friend of mine, old enough to know, said that Radiohead was the Moody Blues of the ’90s. I remember Long Distance Voyager well enough to find that assessment troubling. But, although Radiohead is unabashedly an art-rock band, it has the sense to find its inspiration in the art music of the right century. And whereas—at least when viewed from our post-post-punk vantage point—old-school art rock ran exactly counter to the Zeitgeist, shamefacedly offering frills and furbelows when uncowed rumble and thud were what was wanted, Radiohead is so timely that its oddballs have found not just their popularity but also their critical esteem growing beyond expectation with each calculated rejection of the mainstream, their prickliest songs rendered anthemic despite themselves. Radiohead is the biggest and most respected cult band in existence.

Its cult is so large, in fact, that Kid A’s debuting at No. 1 is no assurance that half the fans aren’t thinking, “Ground Control to Major Thom,” wondering if this time bandleader Yorke hasn’t really lost himself. But the cult is also so zealous, given to examining every turn of phrase and change of scenery on album and in booklet, that it’ll keep spinning Kid A until the music sinks in deep.

Still, Kid A is a risk because it’s radio-hostile in more ways that one. It’s a sonically fragile disc, one that never would have passed Norman Whitfield’s “ghetto box” test. An energetic performance of “Idioteque” on last week’s Saturday Night Live fell apart somewhere between NBC Studios and the air being flicked around by the puny speakers of my Sanyo; the more rockist “The National Anthem” held up somewhat better. Kid A represents the triumph of unfamiliar timbres and textures over cozy-up pop writing; a lot of the record may be noise, but it lives and dies by hi-fi reproduction of the chaos. I’ve often been thankful that music isn’t priced like wine (“That’ll be $219 for The Very Best of Jackie Wilson, $1.75 for the Los Umbrellos remixes”), but I’ve also wondered what a $179 album would sound like. Now that I’ve spent that much on some new Sennheisers, I’ve got my answer. If you’ve been putting it off, now’s the time to upgrade.

You’ll find yourself wandering a great, enveloping, all-subsuming soundscape. “It eats my brain,” protests my wife, but that’s exactly what I like about it. Kid A is difficult to write about while it’s actually playing. From the manipulated chatter bleeding around the edges of the gently oppressive keyboard riff cycling through “Everything in Its Right Place” to the airlessly anhedonic beats of the Aphex Twin-minded “Idioteque” to the wheezy, dissonant pump organ of “Motion Picture Soundtrack,” Kid A brooks little resistance to its colonization of headspace.

There’s scant room in this realm for your own thoughts—not to mention Yorke’s. And that’s a good thing. (Like R.E.M., Radiohead is an outfit for which intelligibility and significance are inversely proportional; unlike the alt-rock elder statesmen, though, the Oxfordshire boys are on the verge of figuring it out while it can still do them some good.) As might be gathered from its GI-tract etymology, logorrhea has an urgency that cannot be denied; all those words have to come out somewhere. Lucky for us, the majority of Yorke’s verbiage is consigned to a stridently typeset booklet concealed inside the jewel box, between the tray card and the tray. It’s also offered up gratis at radiohead.com’s all-you-can-eat word-salad bar.

Elsewhere on the site, Yorke tries to pin the blame on the scissors-and-newsprint bingo of Tristan Tzara, and those who recall that Radiohead actually liked a post-1983 Talking Heads album enough to name itself after a song found there might fall for that explanation (TH having, in earlier days, set to music a poem by Hugo Ball). But the meaning of dada poetry, such as it was, was carried by the fracturing of form and the abandonment of intention. By contrast, Yorke just can’t help himself; no matter how he tries, he can’t stay off message for long.

The best Yorke can do is select his most abstract fragments from the written pile, then half-bury them beneath layers of sound. In the meantime, we can be thankful that lines such as “I sneeze and it’s an Exocet” (inspired by an awareness of the need, prophylactic as well as social, to use a hanky) and the shockingly untimely “We are Cabbage Patch gibbering Dolls” (try “We are War-gibbering-tortle,” perhaps) were never waxed.

You’ll find some of the words from Kid A submerged in the hidden booklet’s graphic soup, but a better way to find out what Yorke is singing is to consult the lyric pages on the conscientiously maintained fan site followmearound.com. But first ask yourself if you really want to know. As much as I enjoy the album, I liked it even more before I read the lyrics. The soundscape was more unified then; now it keeps fracturing into Thom and not-Thom.

No doubt his voice is essential. His swooping, keening melodic line is often what makes a track cohere. Yorke already admits to choosing words as much for their sonic envelope as for their meaning, and he still needs bits of them to push the rest of Radiohead’s sounds the way he wants them to go. But the more confident the band’s music becomes, the more evident is Yorke’s weakness as a wordsmith. Ever since he adopted the pissed-off, put-upon guise of the sensitive kid shushed by that hoary, censorious “wise man” on Pablo Honey’s rabble-rousing “Stop Whispering,” there has been a preachy period feel to his lyrics. Notwithstanding its ’90s stance of self-implication, The Bends’ “Fake Plastic Trees” was built around the equation of plasticness with artificiality and insincerity, man, and the album’s title track made Yorke’s rose-tinted time-travel dreams plain: “I wish it was the sixties/I wish we could be happy.” The “kicking squeeling gucci little piggie” of OK Computer’s “Paranoid Android” sounded like a nod to Animals-era Roger Waters, in 1977 already a ’60s throwback.

Playing the Pied Piper on Kid A’s title track, Yorke still sees himself as a leader of youth (cf. the Peter Pan of The Bends’ “Bones”), and on the musically Animals-esque “How to Disappear Completely,” he’s still ransacking his sleep states for inspiration (à la The Bends’ “(Nice Dream)”). But there is comfort to be taken in the heavy processing put on the vocal mike as Yorke intones, “Rats and children follow me out of town,” as well as in the fact that, “fireworks and hurricanes” aside, most of “Disappear” is a glassily unspecific tone poem about weightless flight. Even if Yorke unwisely refuses to stop making sense, he is trending promisingly.

In the aftermath of the gloom-struck acclamation that greeted OK Computer, the ‘Heads started in with the damage control. On the interview disc of the band-unapproved fool-and-his-money-separation endeavor The Radiohead Star Profile, guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood can be heard saying, “I think there’s a lot of humor in our records, actually, to be honest—quite dark, admittedly. But whole concepts like—dangerous word to use—but whole ideas like ‘Karma Police’ and certain parts of ‘Paranoid Android’ are patently ridiculous.”

Agreed, but that doesn’t make them funny. Go ahead, imagine RuPaul cocking a perfectly manicured nail at some handsy little thing she runs across in a bar and saying, “Karma Police, arrest this man!” It really does have some sass to it. Just not the way Yorke sings it. I’ll grant that Radiohead has at times been misinterpreted. I always thought “Creep” was more knowing than the band has generally been given credit for. But as Yorke’s band has grown to be as musically serious as any in rock, it has become more difficult for it to leaven its sense of purpose. And onstage, with Yorke jerking like a spastic and Greenwood hunching over his Ondes-Martenot (a proto-synthesizer beloved by Messiaen) or mantis-clutching his hissing modernist radio to his chest, any light touch in the lyrics falls by the wayside.

The challenge for Kid A is that it has to take hold of fans one set of headphones at a time. It’s a solitary record, even—if you’re willing to sacrifice a smidgen of high fidelity—an ambulatory one. The back of the Airbag/How Am I Driving? EP asked, “Why visit www.radiohead.com when you can go for a stroll in the sunshine instead?” The time is fast approaching when those options won’t be mutually exclusive. In the meantime, you can take Kid A for that walk.

As has been widely noted, OK Computer presented the anxiety and alienation of a modernity/technology naysayer who nevertheless depended on wires, waves, graphics, and mass transit to mediate between himself and the world. It was a relationship outlined, in high art-rock style, by the scratchy, cryptic album art as much as by the music. Grant Gee’s unglamorous, unsordid tour documentary Meeting People Is Easy: A Film About Radiohead colored the picture in, portraying all five band members—but especially the frontman—as people in need of retreat, genuinely uncomfortable in their celebrity skins. Kid A is the natural follow-up to the film, but also a change in direction. Its thick, virtually wordless cover booklet depicts the forbidding peaks and glaciers of the ice age foretold by “Idioteque”—and perhaps lifted from “London Calling”—but also snow-dusted fields broken by neat hedgerows. Like any, Kid A’s mindscape/soundscape takes its marching orders from the landscape, a large yet apprehensible space to be explored at one’s (usually solitary) leisure. With “Morning Bell” ringing in my ears, its obsessive “walking walking walking” springing up under a 5/4 beat, I wonder whether a thaw is in the offing. Could a pastoralist Radiohead lie in the future?

If so, then Kid A, already the band’s best album because it’s also its farthest reaching, will be seen less as the wild swing at escaping a tired fin de siècle it looks like now and more like the genuine start of something new. Here’s hoping the more conservative release Radiohead has promised for the spring never comes to pass. CP