Consider, for a moment, the three long and distasteful years that have befallen the musical universe since the release of Radiohead's succinct document of postmodern dystopia, the Grammy-winning OK Computer. Radio in 2000 is like Thom Yorke's worst nightmare come true: A world up to its ankles in NutraSweet teen-pop vomit and angry mooks and rap-rockers. Little wonder, then, that Radiohead's Kid A has generated such a high volume of nervous anticipation, as if Santa Claus himself were ready to hand deliver the one CD that promised to save the soul of rock and roll. With a stunning mixture of minor-key electronica, plus enough Music for Films-derived inspiration to rate a royalty check for ambient godhead Brian Eno, Radiohead's seven-year transition from butt-ugly British shoegazers ("Creep") to ethereal heroes of the New Musical Century seems almost complete. It's just too bad that there's nary a chance you'll ever hear any of it on radio any further left of center than AM 1190, save for the surprisingly upbeat "Optimistic," the CD's only reminder of the group's guitar-driven beginnings.
Painfully incompatible with the throes of pop stardom (witness the band's long-form video Meeting People Is Easy if you have any doubt), Yorke and company have produced a genre-shattering release that unfailingly personifies disassociation and anomie, yet remains reasonably approachable. While focused nihilism is the album's recurring theme ("I've lost my way/washed out to sea/I'm lost at sea/Don't bother me" from "In Limbo"), Kid A's sonic environment is deeply textural and trancelike, a complex burst of white noise seemingly light years from the pop simplicity of previous singles such as "Fake Plastic Trees" and even "Karma Police." Take a closer walk with the disc (and crack open that mysterious black tray liner on the jewel box for a special treat -- an illustrated anti-World Trade Organization screed featuring the kind of Tristan Tzara-inspired dadaist cut-up poetry that fills a hundred pages of the band's official Web site, radiohead.com), and the CD unfolds with a grace and beauty all its own. Swim along with the chugging, open-stringed bass line of "The National Anthem" until you're hit by a blurt of horns halfway between John Zorn and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Marvel at the crisp staccato break-beats of "Idioteque." Or be swept away by the pure simplicity of Yorke's still impeccable voice and a bit of ringing electronic piano, as heard on "Everything in Its Right Place" and "Morning Bell."
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Sadly, the album is not the be-all-and-end-all antidote with which old-school alt-rockers had hoped to cure our current cultural malaise. But it will certainly do until the next best thing comes along.