A Crushd Tin Box: Opening Up the Radiohead Time Capsule That Is Kid A Mnesia

How the new box set reveals new wrinkles in the Oxford band’s pair of post-millennium classics

Radiohead Kid A Mnesia, Capitol/UMe 2021

My favorite thing about Kid A and Amnesiac has always been their difference in size.

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

It’s right there in the openers: “Everything in Its Right Place” sounds minimal but grandiose, like a lone organ filling up church air with that doomy 5/4 melody. Its concern? “Everything,” which may as well be the world, in its “right place,” a/k/a this band’s ten hands, to manipulate and futurize to their liking. No, it’s about sucking lemons or colors in Thom Yorke’s head or his hatred of press junkets or all kinds of stuff. But by design it’s trying to show us that music is limitless via the paradoxical delivery system of very strict parameters, one mantra, over and over, no band, changing only in the words, and conquering all of rock history in its path.

Then you have “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box,” an obnoxiously catchy little throwaway that sounds like the world’s smallest, tinniest gamelan orchestra performing inside a mule mug and banging on its cheap metallic walls. Its concern? “I’m a reasonable man, get off my case,” sayeth Thom Yorke, international curmudgeon of no particular mystery following up his album of cloaked, scrambled, ring-modulated vocalizations that occasionally sound like a baby crying inside its test tube. It’s really fun to view their simulated apocalypse from these angles, Kid A’s all world-ending orchestration in the distant frozen desert as on “How to Disappear Completely” or “Motion Picture Soundtrack,” and Amnesiac from a bug’s eye view in a burning building, with every stroke of distorted, criminally thin percussion on “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” falling like blades of grass turned to embers.

 

AUDIO: Radiohead “Treefingers (Extended Version)”

On this front row seat to the cybernetic rapture or whatever you get the world’s smallest violin and the biggest. Amnesiac’s “Hunting Bears” is an instrumental so modest no one talks about it, Kid A’s “Treefingers” is a timestretched few seconds of looped guitar heard round the world. “Optimistic” is a fragile swamp-rock house of cards with enough of a foundation for Hanson to shake it, playing with Orwell compendia and Yorke’s cautionary howl, while “I Might Be Wrong” is a raunch-guitar and sampled-drum workout that goes back to the garage.

Occasionally, the band inverted the trajectory, with the more skyscraping “Morning Bell” on the claustrophobic follow-up and the calmly jittery one on the widescreen landmark. “Pyramid Song,” the band’s finest ever as far as I’m concerned, joins “Dollars & Cents” and “Life in a Glass House” on Amnesiac as tentative jazz exploits for password-protected speakeasies, while Kid A marches “The National Anthem” into a frozen sun, alongside more Met-worthy, avant-techno-classical maneuvers like the quite danceable “Idioteque.” Amnesiac is the only one of the two to feature a conventional rock song, “Knives Out,” though its liberal use of ride cymbals stamps out any delusion of moshing. It also features the genuinely backward “Like Spinning Plates,” which the alien voice treatments of “Kid A” and “Everything in Its Right Place” only teased. 

 

VIDEO: Radiohead “Knives Out”

Here’s where things get fun. The band waited 20 years to drop Kid A Mnesia as part of a reissue box set, a sort of mad-scientist remix of the two albums that places a fun house mirror on all that big and small. Now we get to hear all the missing links, though their many diehards surely already had. “Like Spinning Plates” the beautiful forwards-and-reversed piano lament  and “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” the “True Love Waits” incarnation/mash-up would’ve been the two biggest surprises if they weren’t already the stars of 2002’s I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings, which should really be part of this set. For one thing, it has the best versions of both songs. (And a seven-minute “Everything in Its Right Place” with crowd-participant handclaps.) For another, its 40 tight minutes could’ve easily shared space on one disc with the 32 of Kid Amnesiae. Instead we get the lovely “If You Say the Word,” (which may have felt too minimal in 2001 but sparkling with glockenspiel in the aftermath of releases like “All I Need” or “Daydreaming”) and surprising outtake “Follow Me Around,” (which is catchy enough to sustain for five minutes on mostly acoustic guitar).

 

 

We also get isolated strings from key highlights of both records, the definitive version of b-side “Fog,” another “Morning Bell” because it’s this band’s “Polly,” and recognizable dribs and drabs that add up to not a newly imagined trilogy-completing “album” as the band half-touted with a cynical wink but a worthy souvenir a la the Beatles’ Cirque de Soleil tie-in Love — a mixtape of easter eggs and mash-ups that makes for a swift and fun aural museum exhibit.

If they only included the pretty great contemporaneous live record, this reissue may have been one for the ages. But that’s not how apocalypses work, big or small.

 

VIDEO: Radiohead Live in Vaison-la-Romaine May 2001

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Ted Miller

Ted Miller is trying to collect the head of every Guns ‘n Roses’ guitarist for his rec room. He currently has three.

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