I'm going to undermine my own premise right from the start here: Is there really such a thing as an album which is so boundary-breaking, so encompassing, that it renders all you previously thought and felt into ignominious tatters? Well, not exactly. But perhaps there are albums which are just right, consonant with our characters, and so us.
Clearly, no one album can hope to change a life -the most that can be said for them is they might hitch themselves to the wagon of a wider trend (outsider mindset combined with violent and vulgar tendencies: punk; outsider mindset combined with morbid motivations and mystical leanings: goth). They fit into the broader picture of our lives, and sometimes they give us pointers about which direction to go in.
So “albums changing lives” joins the uncountable ranks of linguistic euphemism. What we say and what we mean are necessarily miles apart -see? What I said was “miles apart”, and what I meant was “not the same thing”. Unavoidable. So, when we say “this album changed my life” what do we mean? Let me try to answer that question by talking about my experience with Radiohead's Kid A.
Kid A was the first time I can remember being validated in my general bearing in the world (miserable; sarcastic) and made to feel good about feeling bad. And I don't mean feel ok about feeling bad, I mean my negativity was reflected back at me as a strength. The robustness of pessimism is good because when your expectations are low your disappointments are not so numerous, and anything good appears disproportionately so.
In fact one of the major themes of Radiohead's work in general over the years has been an accentuation of the negative. In the face of life's horrors (which they also faithfully tabulate) they remind you that it's worse than you think: “Just 'cause you feel it, doesn't mean it's there” runs one famous refrain. Kid A sees the band suffused with antipathy, a terrible resignation at the awfulness of things, and they're keen to spread the bad word of this circumstance to absolutely everyone: there's a line in one of the songs which goes “Everyone has got, fear”, that song is called 'The National Anthem'.
After blanketing the nation in the same paranoid millennial terror, the band (particularly Yorke) really lay it on thickly with the boiling hysteria of 'Idioteque'. First running off some uniquely desolating lines Yorke subsequently insists “We're not scaremongering, this is really happening”. And the truth of this (for the song's duration at least) is bought into by the listener- there's something malevolent at the core of the piece, something which the band themselves are merely giving an intimation of. It's as though at any point the harsh artifice and panicked vocals are going to be drawn back, as a veil, and the grinning. suppurating face of evil will be solidly revealed. The band access profundity by courting this tension, time and again in their material, but perhaps never so vividly as they do on Kid A, and on 'Idioteque'.
Even on a song entitled 'Optimistic' the lyrics are full of dispiriting jabs and asides, cluminating in Yorke's spookily raging final lines “Dinosaurs roaming the earth!”Kid A doesn't really relent with its litany of unfortunateness. Strangely though, the album also holds what is arguably Radiohead's most reassuring piece: 'How To Disappear Completely'. Now I'm not trying to be ironic with this assertion- in Radiohead terms the song is a gushing romantic, with designs on getting you through the circumambient, nameless difficulties of the world by saying “you're not here, this isn't happening” -its the closest anyone gets to coping with the worst: appropriate use of self-delusion.
While Kid A didn't meet the hyperbole of that breathless phrase-“This album changed my life!” -it did offer shelter from the unthinking optimism and cheer which prevails elsewhere in society. When you're down there's nothing worse than a shallow smile or a playful punch, you want to be confirmed in whatever blue mood has assailed you. You want to be made aware that others have felt this frustration and anguish -you want those emotions ratified. Kid A didn't change my life, it validated a part of my existence.