The first track on Radiohead's fourth album is called "Everything in Its Right Place." Actually, nothing in the song sounds like it is in its proper place. An electric piano marches in arrhythmic circles, crisscrossed by the wheeze of an asthmatic synthesizer and intrusive bursts of machine babble. The watery croon of singer Thom Yorke seeps in and out of earshot like whale song. And the words, such as they are, just hang in the air like comic-strip thought balloons: "Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon. . . . There are two colors in my head. . . . What is that she'd tried to say?"
This is pop? Radiohead are a rock band: guitarists Jonny Greenwood and Ed O'Brien, bassist Colin Greenwood, drummer Phil Selway and Yorke on voice and lyrics. The British group's first three albums — Pablo Honey (1993), The Bends (1995) and OK Computer (1997) — are all classic-rock thrillers, sparkling adventures in the radical-populist tradition of the Beatles in the late 1960s; the early, galactic-rock Pink Floyd; and R.E.M. (pick any era). But Kid A is all blur. It is a kind of virtual rock in which the roots have been cut away, and the formal language — hook, riff, bridge — has been warped, liquefied and, in some songs, thrown out altogether. If you're looking for instant joy and easy definition, you are swimming in the wrong soup.
Power chords are sparse; linear grooves even scarcer. Keyboards are programmed to mimic human speech; Yorke's voice, in turn, is squashed into a Kraftwerk-ian bleat in the title song. The crusty funk of "The National Anthem" ends with what sounds like a New Orleans brass band walking into a brick wall. "In Limbo" is just that, a repetitive cascade of gorgeous guitar and pert electric piano. "How to Disappear Completely" moves like an ice floe: cold-blue folk rock with just a faint hint of heartbeat.
Radiohead always make you dig for the humanity in their music. Their best and biggest singles — "Creep," "Fake Plastic Trees," "Lucky" — have all been deceptive bundles of wounded flesh, exquisitely camouflaged in taut, arch distemper. Kid A is even harder to decode. When Yorke sings here, it's as if his voice is going the wrong way — not out from his mouth but back into his head, where the notes and words reverberate against his skull, blunting pronunciation and meaning. According to a transcription on one Radiohead Web site, Yorke is singing "What's going on?" over and over in "The National Anthem." On the record, it sounds more like Yorke is moaning "So alone, so alone." It could be neither; it could be both. Yorke isn't telling; Kid A comes without printed lyrics.
But the whole point of Kid A is that there are no sure things, in pop or anything else — and that our best intentions and finely tuned plans are often just fuck-ups waiting to happen. In a recent Web chat, Yorke claimed that the album title refers to "the first human clone — I bet it has already happened." For all of its apparent inscrutability, Kid A is, in fact, a clear-eyed space opera about a plausible future — a generation raised like plant life. And inside the hermetic electronics and art-pop frost is a heated argument about conformity, individuality and the messy consequences of playing God.
You can definitely hear something, or someone, kicking its way into consciousness. In "How to Disappear Completely," Yorke's particle-beam tenor flickers with both the thrill of invisibility ("That's not me/I go, where I please") and the helplessness of a life without identity. You also hear things falling apart: "Idioteque" is silvery techno pocked with insidious smarm; "Morning Bell" is soft, black psychosis, perversely brightened by church-bell- and sea-gull-like guitar. "Optimistic" is anything but. The track is knockout spunk rock with a catchy, glancing echo of R.E.M.'s "The One I Love." But the kick comes with an ugly twist — Yorke in the catbird seat, Genetic Central, turning his back on his creations: "Big fish eat the little ones/Not my problem. . . ."
There is another new Radiohead album: A second record, begun concurrently with Kid A, is slated for completion and release next year. Maybe the band saved all of the straight pop magic for that one. Hopefully not — in pop music, clarity isn't everything. Any album that gives up all of its secrets in the first go-round isn't built to last. Kid A is a work of deliberately inky, often irritating obsession. There are times, like on "Idioteque" and the Yorke-free electronic instrumental, "Treefingers," when the record feels absolutely airless, entombed in chrome.
But 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. There is also a moral to this mischief: that a manufactured child, by nature or nurture, is no child at all. It is product.
Kid A is not.