Maudlin rarely works in pop music -- not on Morrissey's pathologically attention-starved solo albums and not for the more aggressive Trent Reznor, who awaits the end of the world like a 14-year-old who keeps getting sent to his room. On the surface, at least, the British band Radiohead has been the most public face of this unbearable heaviness of being since 1993, from the time its self-loathing single "Creep" limned social alienation, through 1997, when the sprawling OK Computer explored postmodern alienation.
While Radiohead shared the disaffection of early-nineties grunge, it has always painted its dark hues on a broader canvas, like progressive rockers such as Pink Floyd and Yes. And it presents an odd paradox: Its members are Luddite futurists. On its fourth album, Kid A (Capitol), Radiohead explodes that apparent contradiction by moving farther afield of rock. Not content to embrace familiar dance-music genres like trance (the way Madonna does when she's feeling experimental), the band delves into the most outré electronic music imaginable, from the amniotic soundscapes of Brian Eno to the industrial gristle of Coil. The result is Radiohead's best album -- one that proves to the generation that applauded Johnny Rotten scrawling I HATE on his Pink Floyd T-shirt that punk alienation can lie at the heart of prog rock's excesses.
Kid A starts wrapping listeners in its cocoon right from the opener: "Everything in Its Right Place" blends dulcet synthesizer tones with the sampled voice of Radiohead front man Thom Yorke softly intoning, "kid A." On "Idioteque," the band actually creates a plaintive brand of electro with dubby, percussive crashes and fractured keyboard wails. Even the album's most straight-ahead song, "The National Anthem," opens with a turgid bass line, moves into a tight jam, then collapses under the weight of free-jazz horn playing that recalls Steven Mackay's blurting sax on the Stooges' Fun House.
The most potent piece of music on Kid A is "How to Disappear Completely," which comes midway through the 50-minute album. Backed by quiet, evocative acoustic guitar reminiscent of the Smiths' dizzying downer "How Soon Is Now?" and a string arrangement halfway between country music and whale noise, Yorke mournfully croons, "I'm not here . . . this isn't happening." As his voice grows more insistent, the orchestrations swell and fall; it's achingly sad and breathtaking. But true to the album's discordant beauty, an overlay of pattering synths keeps the song from drowning in its own sorrows.
Letting shifting soundscapes do the emotional work of lyrics -- Yorke scolded a Spin interviewer for assuming "other people don't believe sounds and textures are in any way emotional or evocative" -- might merely seem like canny posturing for a post-rock world. But by writing clipped phrases that often convey more than confessional lyrics, Yorke rescues Kid A from a literalness that could have made his maudlin sensibility unbearable. True believers in the power of sound, Radiohead is the rare rock band that believes music can speak for itself.