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Radiohead’s Kid A and the Mystic Experience
The mystic experience is a phenomenon that occurs world wide, across cultures, genders, and religious beliefs. From Native American shamans to each of the Abrahamic faiths, from new age religions and hard core meditaters to the average person on the street this phenomenon has affected humans for thousands of years. Many who have had this encounter spend a vast amount of time and energy attempting to convey the nature of this wholly unexplainable event. There are lengthy books, various pieces of art, different films, and music dedicated to explaining the nature of the mystic experience. There is evidence to suggest that Radiohead’s album Kid A was inspired by and attempts to convey the nature of the mystic experience. Many of the themes interwoven throughout the record, such as loss of self, seeing the true nature of reality, the inability to explain what is occurring, and the complete encompassing of the self in the universal “one” (which are some of the core characteristics of the mystic experience) are expressed not only through the lyrics but the instrumentation, arrangement, and overall musical texture of the album. In this paper I will show that the album Kid A is both inspired by, and an attempt to explain, a mystic experience. I will define and describe the mystic experience, analyze the tracks on the album for any mystical content, and present the album as a singular work to be taken as an attempt to express the mystic experience. Please note that I have included a complete set of lyrics from the album at the end of the paper for reference purposes.
- Image retrieved from Pop Culture Monster
In his book, The Light at the Center, Aghehananda Bharti calls the core of the mystic experience “expansive numerical oneness” (Bharti, 31). This “oneness” is a complete and total loss of self with the entirety of the universe. People who have had the mystic experience describe it in one of two ways: as an immanent experience where they may feel as though the whole universe is coming into themselves or as a transcendent experience where they are going into the whole universe. Regardless of the manner in which the experiencer relates the event, the ultimate end is the same, complete and total unity with ultimate reality. At this point of complete unity with the “oneness” there is no longer a self having an experience; there is simply the “oneness” of which the experiencer has become a part. The “oneness” with the infinite and complete loss of self are the essential qualities of the mystic experience. In Jordan Paper’s book, The Mystic Experience: A Descriptive and Comparative Analysis, he present’s William James’s four characteristics of the mystic experience. These traits are ineffability, noetic qualities, transiency, and passivity (Paper, 57). Ineffability simply means that the experience is ultimately indescribably. Having noetic qualities means having a feeling of ultimate reality or truth beyond what is experienced in the everyday world. The transitory nature of the mystic experience simply means that it is short lived, often less than an hour. Passivity refers to the notion that the person having the experience does not have control in inducing or arresting the experience. Thus a working definition of the mystic experience, and the one that I shall use for the purpose of this paper, is a complete unitive experience with absolute “oneness” that is ineffable, noetic, transitory, and passive.
Given the nature of the mystic experience it must be noted that while testimonies given by those that have had the encounter may be quite descriptive and lengthy, there is ultimately no language that completely conveys its true existence. After all, the idea is that a complete loss of self occurs during the experience and as such it is only afterwards, when the self has reemerged, that one is able to give an account of the events that transpired. That being said, many accounts have similar sensory perceptions. Often times there are sensory phenomena such as a bright yet unobtrusive light, the feeling of falling into the world, perhaps music or tones, out-of-body sensations, and many more. These physical, sensory phenomena while often reported with many mystic experiences, are not a necessary requisite for the experience. The point is that when relaying the mystic experience to others or writing down an individual’s account of their journey, many different types of descriptions appear. In each religious faith, mystics have related their experiences in terms more in line with their traditions; Buddhists speak of the Void, Christians speak of being with God and/or Jesus, Taoists as seeing this world as a dream and ultimate reality somewhere else that permeates this dream, etc. In the case of the band Radiohead, it seems that much of the album Kid A is just such a retelling of the mystic experience in the only way the band knows how – through music.
Kid A is a radical departure from Radiohead’s previous three albums. Their first two albums, Pablo Honey and The Bends, were straight-forward early 1990’s British rock; three guitars, a bassist, a drummer, catchy hooks, and enough depressing lyrics to make Kurt Cobain jealous. Their third outing, Ok Computer, was a bit different. While the album is still mainly a straight-forward rock album, there was a fair amount of flirtation with electronic music as well. Several songs had synthesizers, Moog effects pedals, and electronic voices. While Ok Computer was a progression from the previous two, it still sounded like the traditional Radiohead. After a long tour in support of Ok Computer the band recorded and released Kid A. The album does not start with a wailing guitar riff like its predecessors but rather a warm and melancholy organ playing a steadily chugging melody.
Each of the ten songs on the album are very distinct from each other yet there is a flow and a common feeling to them that weaves through each track drawing the record together. Much like the Beatles’ later albums or those of Pink Floyd, Kid A is best experienced in its entirety. While there are individual songs that are more commercially friendly than others, none of them is really complete outside of the context of the album. Each time you hear a song from the middle of the album it sounds out of place without its distinction in the course of the album. This lends itself to a unitive quality much like that of the mystic experience. The albums length is forty-nine minutes and fifty seven seconds. According to the accounts presented in Jordan Paper’s work, the mystic experience does not generally last any longer than an hour (Paper, 11-27).
The album begins with the song “Everything in its Right Place.” This is a noetic quality of the mystic experience. The mood of the song is very calm and rhythmic inducing an almost trance-like state. This has been a technique used by practitioners of Zen and other meditative traditions in order to reach satori or enlightenment whose characteristics are those of the mystic experience. The lyrics, while fairly abstract, seem to describe observing the world functioning as it should. “Everything, Everything, Everything in its Right Place.” This constant repetition, almost like a chant, seems so genuine that there is no question that for the band this is a quite literal claim.
The second song, “Kid A,” is almost entirely composed by computers. Even the singer Thom Yorke’s voice has been run through a computer program to sound completely different. There is sort of an ethereal quality to the entire song. “Standing in shadows at the end of my bed, waiting in shadows at the end of my bed.” These lyrics are suggestive of standing outside of one’s self while awaiting something else. This is a quality of the mystic experience during the phase prior to being completely absorbed into “oneness.” Experiencers of the event have described a sort of out-of-body experience in which they are still aware of themselves yet simultaneously outside of themselves.
Song three, “The National Anthem,”is less subdued than the first two tracks on the album. It employs the use of some rather strange instruments including an ondes Martenot, which is similar to a theremin. The ondes Martenot uses a 6-octave keyboard whose keys can wiggle from side to side to create a type of vibrato. There is also a metallic chord that runs the length of the keyboard with a ring attached that the player can wear. The pitches produced by sliding the ring left and right correspond with the keys on the organ. The effect is an other-worldly mix of organ andtheremin, which have infinite, sustain and produce beautiful sweeping effects. This track in particular makes heavy use of the instrument as well as a chaotic horn section. “Everyone! Everyone around here! Everyone will stop here! Everyone will stop the fear! What's going on? What's going on?” These lyrics seem to reflect someone trying to figure out what is going on around them; that person seems to feel that everyone’s fear and doubt can cease in that instant. This is similar to what people explain once they have had the mystic experience. It seems that once one has had this complete unitive experience the world makes a bit more sense or at least that there is no need to fear what once seemed so frightening. It is similar to people who have had positive near-death experiences and changed their lives knowing that there is a bigger plan out there.
Track four is called “How to Disappear Completely” and may be the most explicit example of the unitive experience. It employs all the sonic devices present on the rest of the album that create a disjointed and other-worldly feeling. As in previous songs though more explicitly here, the lyrics describe being outside of one’s self. “I’m not here this isn’t happen” is repeated several times throughout the track in reference to several events. The idea seems to be that none of what occurs in the world is truly real. This would point to the noetic quality of the mystic experience. The mystic experience feels more real than anything ever experienced in the “real world” according to reports. This seems to be what track four is discussing.
Track five, “Treefingers,” is an instrumental. There isn’t any real rhythm or melody to the song. It is kind of a structureless sonic landscape. It’s very warm and soothing, almost embryonic. It gives the impression of an all-encompassing feeling similar to that found in the mystic experience.
Tracks six through eight (“Optimistic,” “In Limbo,” “Idioteque,” and “Morning Bell”) almost seem to be the climax of the event where the sense of self is completely absent. “Optimistic” uses lots of effects giving one the sensation of whirling about in some sort of other realm. “In Limbo” is a disjointed mix of arpeggiated guitar riffs and a haunting back beat with an almost up-beat jazz organ riff. The lyrics are altogether muddled and describe being lost in a sea and incapable of receiving messages from the shore. However, this sea going person seems to think that those stuck on shore are “living in a fantasy land.” This would again be suggestive of the mystic experience being true reality and the world of everyday experience being little more than a fantasy. The song ends with a whirling of all the instruments and vocals, which leads into the computer composed “Idioteque.” “Who's in bunker? I have seen too much. You haven't seen enough. You haven't seen it. I'll laugh until my head comes off!” These lyrics and the composition of this song sound as though they were from the diary of a mad man. It sounds as though it is someone who has come out of the mystic experience and cannot quite grapple with what has occurred. They realize that the experience is the only true reality and must now deal with being separated from that world. Most people who have the mystic experience seem to realize that the day-to-day world is simply an illusion of separateness; that in fact all things are connected. Some, however, experience an intense longing for that complete union with “oneness.” That is what this song seems to be about. The song bleeds into “Morning Bell,” which is a rather depressing song about loss and longing. The lyrics suggest a theme of separation from reality and anxiety in dealing with the everyday world.
The final track on the album called “Motion Picture Soundtrack,” is a sad little ditty that seems to chronicle someone’s attempts to get back to the “oneness.” Drugs and sex and sad movies are the vices employed by this person who admits that he may in fact be crazy for feeling this way. Half way through the song there is a heavenly harp arrangement and haunting background vocals. The lyrics suggest that this person is going to leave the world of the day-to-day and live in this eternal “oneness.” He claims that “they fed us on little white lies” which is suggestive of the dogma religions have placed on what most of their founders have experienced which is complete unity with the universe or spirit or God depending on the words chosen to express the notion of the “oneness.” Approximately two minutes after the song ends there is a loud swell of what can only be described as joyous sound that rises and falls in the span of about fifteen seconds. In the context of the mystic experience it seems to be the unobtrusive unmelodic sound that is sometimes heard by those who have encountered this event.
Before I conclude this paper I must bring a few criticisms to the forefront. The biggest difficulty in assessing whether or not any piece of literature or art is influenced by the mystic experience is that one of the core characteristics of the experience is its ineffability. There is no accurate way to describe the event. There is also no way to induce the experience. While many mystics have tried to induce the experience through rituals, meditation, and drugs the complete unitive experience cannot be invoked; it simply happens. This being the case, there is no scientific way to validate the claims of those who have had the mystic experience. Furthermore, there are some who would argue, as in the case of Stephen Katz, “that all experiences are culturally mediated” and thus no experience can capture a true reality in and of itself (Paper, 55). Thus for some, especially those who think that only those phenomenon that can be scientifically tested, Katz’s statement makes it fairly easy to write off any claim of a mystic experience simply as a phenomenon of the brain that many people have had for centuries and that has been misinterpreted as something other than the misfiring of certain neurons. Yet science cannot explain why the mystic experience happens. As yet, there are not any conclusive studies that can pinpoint exactly how and why this phenomenon occurs. Therefore the claim that the mystic experience can be written off as a matter of brain function remains unproven.
If we assume that the mystic experience is in fact a legitimate experience of the eternal one reality then I would assert that the album Kid A is in fact inspired by such an experience and attempts to chronicle the experience and its aftermath. It is difficult to tell if it is only the singer, Thom Yorke, who has had the experience or if it has occurred to other members of the band. There is no research to suggest that a group mystic experience is possible, that is to say that several people have the unitive experience at exactly the same time. Furthermore, the statistical likelihood that all five members of the band have had such an experience is very slim. Since Thom Yorke has ultimate creative control over the band on top of being the group’s lyricist suggests that this album may be his attempt to convey his own personal experience. While we will ultimately never know anything concrete of the mystic experience, I feel I have provided enough evidence to suggest that Radiohead’s album Kid A is in fact inspired by and an attempt to explain a mystic experience.
- Bharati, Agehenanda. The Light at the Center: Context and Pretext of Modern Mysticism. Santa Barbara CA: Ross-Erikson, 1976. 30-31. Print.
- Paper, Jordan. The Mystic Experience: A Descriptive and Comparative Analysis. Albany NY: State University of New York, 2004. 11-27, 55, 57. Print.
- Radiohead. Kid A. Capitol Records, 2000.
- You can read the complete lyrics of Radiohead’s album Kid A here: http://lyrics.rockmagic.net/lyrics/radiohead/kid_a_2000.html