Song 190: Radiohead, “The National Anthem” (2000)Posted: July 9, 2013
I fell in love with Radiohead’s record The Bends in the summer of 1998, the same summer I got to know Joni Mitchell’s Blue and Elvis Costello‘s Brutal Youth. (Weird trio, I know.) I liked OK Computer, but the songs on The Bends got to me more, and they still do. OK Computer is undeniably brilliant, but its coldness is a little too unnerving for me (which I know was the point). I can only listen to it once in a while without feeling like every machine in my house is about to destroy me.
Kid A is equally unnerving, but sonically, it has a lot more variation. It’s full of the turn-of-the-century anxiety that comprised OK Computer, but the sound is more of a landscape, more of a moody motif, than its predecessor. Maybe the record’s cover art is what brings this image to mind, but it makes me think of a creepy, glitched-out techno-country with pixelated mountains, valleys, and rivers. There are warm synths, jagged guitars, buzzy vocals, and fat basslines; it’s like Radiohead built their own Radiohead theme park.
The song starts with that indelible riff, which Thom Yorke wrote when he was 16 and saved for just the right song. It sets the unsettling tone perfectly: its use of both the major and the minor thirds (F-sharp and F-natural, in the key of D) make the song simultaneously major and minor. Ultimately, all hell breaks loose, but in an organized way. In his Rolling Stone review, David Fricke said the horn section sounds like “a New Orleans brass band walking into a brick wall.” I think that’s exactly right: this isn’t complete chaos, but it’s also not right. Somebody’s leading us somewhere unsafe, like a drum major leading us into an alley.
I remember watching Radiohead play “The National Anthem” on Saturday Night Live and thinking, “This is exactly where they belong.” As Yorke seemed to seize under strobe lights and the horn section blared like multiple car alarms, it seemed like Radiohead had found its niche. A friend who was in the room asked, “Do they always have a horn section?” (He was in a ska band, and I think he had some newfound, if misguided, respect for the band.)
Kid A gets lots of just praise for its avant-garde aesthetic, but every time I listen to it, I’m surprised about its sheer accessibility, and about how seemingly disparate elements cohere as if by magic. It’s a dark, scary record, but it’s also full of light, if you look hard enough. As Fricke wrote, “this is pop, a music of ornery, glistening guile and honest ache, and it will feel good under your skin once you let it get there.” And once you do let it get there, you feel as if you’ve been complicit to something nefarious and unprecedented. In other words, it’s art.