Book Reviews: Kid A Mnesia | Fear stalks the earth
How do you follow up on one of the most successful and influential albums of the 1990s? If you’re Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, the endless adulation for OK Computer fills you with such “ferocious anger and distrust” that you can’t bear to make music anymore. Instead, you seek refuge with an old friend from art school, Stanley Donwood, who was employed to design a cover for your next album, but whose real job seems to be to distract you from having to finish it.
Kid A Mnesia and Fear Stalks the Land – released to mark the 20th anniversary of Radiohead’s Kid A and Amnesiac albums – document a remarkably close collaboration forged as Yorke stubbornly abandoned the angsty guitar songs that had made him a reluctant rock star in favor of anguished electronics, krautrock and jazz. Most fans know how difficult those sessions were and how they nearly broke up the band. Now it turns out that while guitarist Ed O’Brien, bassist Coin Greenwood and drummer Phil Selway struggled to contribute songs without guitar, bass or drums, Yorke sometimes didn’t record music from the everything, retreating aside to create large quantities. writing, drawing and painting with Donwood, mostly unpublished until now.
As Yorke admits in Kid A Mnesia, some of this behavior was “completely disproportionate, profoundly unhealthy”, but in Donwood he found a creative kindred spirit to rival and perhaps eclipse his bandmates. We find out that the two would swap paintings mid-run, altering each other’s work until someone “wins”. As Fear Stalks the Land reveals, they also wrote enough together to fill 165 pages of verses, lists, and journal entries. Notably, it doesn’t tell you who wrote what and it’s often hard to tell, although the parts that made it into songs are in bold, often revealed as fragments of much longer writings. There is a lot of despair, black humor and violence, even more than in the songs. Some fans will love it, others may roll their eyes at the wordiness.
The inclusion of actual album art right at the end of Kid A Mnesia is a startling reminder of how far Donwood went above and beyond what was strictly required. But if the whole project seems antiquated in its self-indulgence – who can still do that on a major label payroll? – the themes they explored (global warming, government surveillance, the corrosive power of the internet) are still strikingly topical. As Yorke says, the point of being an artist “is to retain a beginner’s mind. Struggling is the point. There’s a lot of excitement here, but the results — a number-one, Grammy-winning album, even some foreknowledge about the times we now live in — speak for themselves.
Kid A Mnesia: A Book of Radiohead Artwork, by Thom Yorke and Stanley Donwood, Canongate, £30; Fear Stalks The Land: A Commonplace Book, by Thom Yorke and Stanley Donwood, Canongate, £9.99
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