I still have problems with Kid A.
I know, I know. It’s been 19 years, and I should probably move on and stop trying to enjoy a record I am clearly not going to get. But it’s considered such a masterpiece by, well, everybody that I keep picking at it, hoping that I can free whatever I have been missing so I can drink it in. And yet it eludes me. I quite like “Everything in Its Right Place” and “How to Disappear Completely,” and the tricky time signatures of “Morning Bell” work for me, but most of this record just kind of happens while I am listening to it, without moving me in the slightest.
It’s been the same for nearly two decades, and while I have come to grips with the band Radiohead is now – I rather enjoyed both The King of Limbs and the more traditional and organic A Moon Shaped Pool – I still struggle with the first big step they took down this path. After the complex brilliance of OK Computer, Kid A sounded (and still sounds) like formless atmospheres, disregarding melody for sound.
The thing is, I like music that disregards melody for sound, and I enjoy formless atmosphere. For me, it’s never been that the music on Kid A is too weird. It’s always been the hard right turn that Radiohead took in making it, because I truly love their previous material. The disappointment I felt listening to Kid A in 2000 has been a stumbling block for me since – I still cannot help feeling underwhelmed by it to this day.
That disappointment lingered for a good long time, and I think Thom Yorke took the brunt of it. His solo material has felt the most Kid A-ish to me, with its immersion in synthesizer sounds and its near-total lack of any memorable melody. So no one is more surprised than me at how much I have been able to roll with Anima, Yorke’s decidedly strange third solo album.
I’m surprised because Anima is everything I dislike about Radiohead’s post-OK Computer work. It is almost entirely synthesizer-based, it regularly evaporates into formlessness, and I can’t remember a single one of these songs outside of the variations in mood and feel. I’d have a hard time calling most of these songs at all, so loose are their structures. “Traffic” has a refrain, sort of, but this mainly feels like a collection of experiments that found their way onto Yorke’s hard drive late at night.
But damn if it doesn’t work. For decades now Yorke and his comrades have been trying to capture the sounds of hopelessness and decay, with intermittent success. Anima feels like he got there. The whole album feels constricted, paranoid, haunted, and while Yorke’s solo material has certainly flirted with these emotions before, this one feels like a full immersion. Listening to it feels like falling down a bottomless hole, with no visible way out.
It’s hard for me to pick out particular songs to discuss here, since it’s all of a piece. I like the shift halfway through the tick-ticking “Twist,” when the piano chords that make up the rest of the song come in. I like the backing vocals on the comparatively slinky “I Am a Very Rude Person.” I like how long it takes “The Axe” to actually do anything, and that when it does do something, it includes big drums by Joey Waronker. I love the guitars and strings that open the closer, “Runwayaway.”
But mostly, I like how it all hangs together and leaves me with a dark and empty feeling. Some might find this to be an undesirable effect, but I am all in for music that makes me feel anything. Yorke has been trying to leave me with exactly this sensation for years now, I think, and with Anima, he did it. This isn’t materially different from a lot of the work he’s given us over the past two decades, but for some reason this one has clicked with me, and I can’t stop listening to it.
There has always been a self-consciousness to Yorke’s weirdness, though, whereas I have always found the Flaming Lips to be just naturally weird. The fact that these guys have any hits at all, and that they have spent the majority of their career on a major label, is bizarre. That they convinced that major label to distribute records like Zaireeka and Embryonic is some kind of sorcery.
Warner Bros. is also behind the Lips’ new one – their 15th – called King’s Mouth: Music and Songs. And I don’t expect to hear a weirder major label release this year. Just the background on this thing should tell you what you’re in for: it serves as an accompanying score for an art exhibit (also called King’s Mouth) by frontman Wayne Coyne, and it tells the story of a village and its king, a giant, who sacrifices himself to save the villagers from an avalanche. As tribute, the villagers cut off the king’s head, dip it in steel and put it on display.
Oh, did I mention that there is linking narration by Mick Jones of the Clash? Because there is.
Given all that, this is one of the most accessible records the band has made in years. Songs like “Giant Baby” and “How Many Times” recall the strummy emotionalism of The Soft Bulletin, still among this band’s most beloved records. Many of the Lips’ trademark sounds are here – big low-end synthesizers, acoustic guitars that peek out from behind the din, Coyne’s high, pleading voice – but rather than feel too familiar, they help guide you through this delightfully odd little story.
The king’s death in “All For the Life of the City” works because the band refuses to sentimentalize it – the song is a jaunty trot, only Jones’ narration truly striking at the heart of things. The rest of the album is about the villagers’ attempts to memorialize their giant monarch, and Coyne ties it all together with the closing song, “How Can a Head,” about the multitudes living inside all of us that cannot be captured by a monument, no matter how beautiful. It’s an anthem that can stand alongside their best.
King’s Mouth is, make no mistake, a strange album. But if you’re familiar with the Flaming Lips, nothing here will throw you. In fact, this one may hit home more than some of their recent dives into esoterica – it is certainly closer to classic Lips than, say, Peace Sword. Even at their most crowd-pleasing, though, the Lips have an aesthetic all their own, and it’s in full flower here. I don’t know another band like them, but as long as we have this one, I don’t need to.
As Mick Jones says in the final seconds, that’s the end of our story. Bye! Next week, the Bird and the Bee cover Van Halen and I am here for it. (And probably one or two other things as well.) Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.