Listen to this track by laptop-totin’ Oxfordian rock quintet and era-defining post-rock flirters Radiohead. It’s “The National Anthem”, a deep cut off of their 2000 album that confounded many a music reviewer, Kid A.
That album was the follow up to their 1997 album OK Computer, a work that stirred up the stagnant waters of the rock scene in Britain as Brit-Pop was beginning to become somewhat bent with age. But as it turned out, Radiohead had not arrived with that record in terms of their ambition as a musical unit. They were on their way upward and inward to the degree that when this new album Kid A emerged, it was not just in the public eye because it was so long-awaited. It was a bona fide news story.
Before its release, it was rumoured that there were no guitars to be found on the new record! It was an electronic record full of bleeps and blips instead! Judas! Even today, 15 years (!) later, there continues to be a misconception that Radiohead abandoned six-stringed noisemakers completely on this record. They hadn’t. There’s plenty of guitar on this album. There just aren’t any solos or prominent riffs. There are other textures that simply took precedence on some tracks. With this one, it was beats and synthesized washes of sound, plus brass, of all things. Radiohead had changed their gameplan.
But, what they hadn’t changed was their interest in the direction culture was headed, especially on a newly dawning century. If we listeners were all distracted by how different the sound of the album was compared to what they’d come up with before, then on first listen, we may have missed what had stayed the same, coded into the music; a mistrust and fear of where the future was taking us, and the tenuous threads on which civilization itself hangs.
The birth of this record was hard won, even among the band. They questioned the new direction as much as the early critics had, coming off of a mainstream hit album and effectively throwing away that template for success to start something entirely out of their experience at the time. It’s always frightening to change direction, whether you’re making a record, or moving to a new town. But, in many ways that made its timing absolutely perfect. The twentieth century was about to end. The future was here, and it wasn’t quite as rosy as we’d thought it was going to be. At very least, the technological advancements at the time seemed less about solutions, and more about wider implications instead. Changing methods and using new tools to forge a path through new territory isn’t unconventional under those kinds of cultural conditions. It would take a while for everyone to adjust their expectations.
With all of the furore over what this new record represented and how it sounded, this song reinforced the idea that Radiohead were honestly engaged in their own process despite any expectations placed on them by previous successes, as well as brave enough to change their musical tack to be more true to who they were and where they were going. They had things to say about culture, and about identity in the modern world. This is not to say that this song, or the rest of the record was some deliberate attempt to position themselves as political writers. What they were able to do in their own unique way was to suggest sociopolitical statements by using lyrics, sure, but also by crafting textures and setting up sonic contrasts that evoked themes of isolation, alienation, and the flimsiness of culturally imposed and agreed upon realities. To me, this is their greatest achievement with this record, and with this song in particular. And maybe it’s this that most unsettled the people who were expecting another “Fake Plastic Trees” or “No Surprises”.
What of the sociopolitical nature of “The National Anthem”? Let’s start with the that title, which is a cultural lever that evokes the reverence of authority, tradition, and possibly the impulse to stand, or salute. This song undercuts all of those associations and impulses, calling their validity into question. Where most national anthems are meant to gather people around a common identity and purpose, this one concerns itself with with the opposite. Here, there is no larger context to wrap oneself in after all. Instead, there is uncertainty and alienation. “Everyone around here is so near. What’s going on (so alone)?”
In some ways, maybe this is more true an anthem for nations than actual national anthems, with so many people unaware of the machinations of those who hold power, or even of the lives of those around us in general, finding ourselves cut off as community cohesion becomes more and more undermined either by commercialism and blind consumer culture, or by cultural disenfranchisement and poverty. And even here, the music itself seems to tell its own wordless story disconnected from the sparseness of the lyrics that were collected by lead singer and lyricist Thom Yorke, cut up, and re-arranged to create an impressionistic narrative. This is a song about an anthem that isn’t an anthem at all in the end. It’s about the loss of an anthem, of a set of assumptions that have been proven to have been on shaky ground all along but to which we desperately cling anyway; “everyone has got the fear. It’s holding on”.
The most powerful element in all of that is the chaotic clash of brass against the electronics, all caged in by the tenacious bassline that runs through out. As the brass parts become more and more wild, sounding like wild animals breaking out of a zoo, all manner of themes seem to suggest themselves; the fragility of order, the delicately constructed nature of civilization, and maybe even the futility of denying those things, with a thought that if we’re running the zoo now, how long until the zoo begins to run us, overrun by forces in the universe that are greater than the models we’ve set up for ourselves to make sense of things?
These ideas certainly play into the main themes of the album, concerning itself with our lofty ideas of where technology is taking us, and begging the question of what toll it will take on our humanity as a result. That’s why Thom Yorke’s voice is so effective on this song and through out the album’s running time. It is disembodied and distant, often difficult to hear, put on the same level as all other layers of sound to the point where it seems as though this music isn’t about human performance at all. It’s about being subsumed by a world of our own flawed design, and one constructed of some very brittle materials and tenuous connections to which our own destiny as a species is bound even now.
Radiohead are an active unit today. You can update yourself on their movements by visiting radiohead.com
Otherwise, to get a sense of what critics are saying about Kid A when it was released, check out the 2000 Rolling Stone magazine review here, written by David Fricke.