As soon as the opening track started, it sounded just as good, if not better, than any other recording of Kid A I’d heard. The synthesized piano chords sounded rubbery and smooth. Thom Yorke’s vocals — crystalline, with some scratchiness around the edges, providing an effective counterbalance to the silky synth.
This was not some super high-fidelity digitally remastered release, nor an enhanced 180 gram vinyl pressing. This was how I heard Radiohead’s Kid A on cassette tape.
There was a tinge of distortion in the very beginning of the next track — the title track. I’m not sure whether it was distortion coming from the tape or from my Walkman, but it seemed to fit with the tension created by the pulsing drums.
The line, “I stepped on a little white lie” — it really stood out. I’m not sure why.
A strange thing happened to me last summer. I became interested in cassette tapes again.
It came out of nowhere. I was on vacation with family at the beach in North Carolina, and one day I thought it would be cool to buy one of those old yellow, water-proof sports Walkmans on eBay. I expressed these thoughts to one of my sisters.
“Why don’t you just buy a water-proof case for your iPhone?” she said.
Typical response from today’s connected smartphone user.
But that wasn’t the point. The idea of the Walkman appealed to me because it was obsolete, but still cool. It had the ability to offer something that I felt had been otherwise absent from my music listening experiences.
Over the ensuing weeks I kept thinking about the Walkman, and eventually I bought one on eBay.
It was not one of the sports models. I finally settled on a basic black one (model WM-AF22 to be clear), complete with an AM/FM radio, headphone jack, and a belt clip, in case I couldn’t be bothered to hold it.
“Radio cassette player,” read the words on the plastic casing, with the phrase, “Fantastic sound anytime, anywhere,” emblazoned underneath. The phrase sounds quaint today.
Now I needed tapes for that fantastic sound.
I had a cassette player in my car, so I already owned a few singles. But they were just singles, and I bought them as a joke: Two Hearts by Phil Collins, License to Kill by Gladys Knight (from the James Bond film), Run Away by Real McCoy, Better Not Tell Her by Carly Simon.
So I went to my local record store and picked up these albums on cassette: The Joshua Tree by U2, Fore by Huey Lewis and the News, Shaking the Tree by Peter Gabriel, and Dream of the Blue Turtles by Sting, all for a total of $15.
For the price, these were solid buys. But still I thought I could do better.
What would be a special album to own on cassette? I was looking for something that people wouldn’t think of owning on the format. I wanted something that seemed at odds, musically, with an analog technology. Something that felt strange in the era of tape.
I had been getting back into Radiohead, and I thought of Kid A. It seemed perfect. The album is influenced by many musical genres, but its digital and electronic stylings feel futuristic. It doesn’t seem to belong on an old cassette.
And yet Kid A’s soundscapes are also other-worldly, just like the Walkman’s foreignness. And in spite of its digital feel, Kid A’s texture is soft, like a tape’s soft hiss. So maybe it would be the perfect pairing.
I found it on eBay, being sold by some dude in Latvia. I got it for $24, including shipping.
You might be asking yourself — What the hell? Why the fascination with cassettes? What’s wrong with the iPod, or iTunes, or Spotify, or CDs?
I think devices like the iPod, or streaming services like Spotify, have made it easy to skip around songs without giving much thought to the full LP.
OK, but so what if people aren’t listening to entire albums? Thanks to a range of new software and apps, people might be listening to more music now in the aggregate. It’s been made more accessible.
I think listening to an album from start to finish, as the artist intended, can be magical. It gives the listener a better sense of how the songs fit together. It’s more immersive, and transporting, than listening to a few songs and moving on.
The Walkman intrigued me because I wondered whether it would help me better appreciate the album as an art form.
There’s a debate to be had over whether it would be better to go with vinyl for this experiment.
But let’s not go there. I chose the Walkman. I thought it looked cool. I liked its portability, and the difficulty of easily switching between tracks appealed to me.
I’m not ready to make the argument that today’s software and online services have killed our attention spans, rendering us incapable of listening to an album in full.
But it is rare now that I carve out the time to listen to an album by itself. So before listening to Kid A on cassette, I wondered whether other technologies vying for my attention would detract from the experience.
It was the end of the title track when the sound’s beauty hit me. That last minute or so of the song where it’s just the electronic drum kit, and then the synths come in … it sounded lovely. And it got better and better from there.
The bass line on The National Anthem sounded buttery smooth. And when the lyric finally started with “Everyone,” I laughed out loud, it sounded so good.
At the end of that song, it struck me how great it was not having a clock counter to see how much time was left. That’s the section of the song where ordinarily I might be doing that, but not this time. I focused more on the present moment, not what was coming next.
What came next was the line, “I float down the Liffey.” All the elements in How to Disappear Completely fit together so sweetly. When Greenwood’s reverberated guitar rang through the mix after Yorke delivered that line, it was dramatic, yes, but not over-powering. The guitar came in strong, but not for very long, and then it simmered.
I’ve always loved the song How to Disappear Completely. But this may have been the first time that Treefingers felt like the right song to follow, because How to Disappear was so heavy and intense. I needed a slow-burner like Treefingers to take the edge off.
It was during Treefingers, however, when I hit the home screen on my phone for the first time since I started listening to the album, to check if I had any messages.
That made me sad.
But those last 10 seconds or so of Treefingers — holy cow. It was very, very loud. But it was loud in a strange way, because Treefingers is a song that just bobs along.
And then it was time to flip the tape to side 2. I didn’t use this as any kind of break. I immediately began the next track, Optimistic.
Optimistic also sounded great, but not as many things jumped out at me like during the previous songs. However, when Yorke sang, “Nervous messed up marionette, floating around on a prison ship,” what a ship it was! I have no idea what effect or instrument was used to make that “ship” linger in a digital way, but it was just the type of thing I wanted to hear on the Walkman.
And then, like the end of Kid A, the last 30 seconds or so of Optimistic — when it’s just the drums, bass, and some reverberated guitar in the background — sounded epic. This was the one point where I had to stop the tape for a bit. There was no transition or segue in between Optimistic and In Limbo, and I needed to finish getting down these thoughts.
In Limbo, meanwhile, might have been the best-sounding track on the album, right out of the gates. At the same time, I felt a growing urge to check my email. I’d been using my laptop as I listened to the album to jot down these notes, and I saw that I had a new message in my inbox.
I stopped myself from reading it.
“You’re living in a fantasy,” Yorke crooned as I fought this urge.
Time for Idioteque. It made me think of an industrial factory on fire.
“I laugh until my head comes off.” I always loved that line. Not “pops off,” or “falls off.” Comes off.
A text message.
Then a tweet.
The end of Idioteque made me think of Halloween. I didn’t know what the instruments were — ondes Martenot? — but it sounded like a cross between ambulance sirens and banshees howling in the wind.
And then the keyboards of Morning Bell floated on top of those spooky sounds as they drifted away.
Someone just liked one of my photos on Instagram.
Maybe I should have sat farther away from my computer and smartphone for this listening session, and taken my notes on a notepad.
“Cut the kids in half,” Yorke said.
There were some creaking sounds in the recording on Motion Picture Soundtrack, like someone in the band was setting down some heavy equipment or instrument not as carefully as he should have.
Still, it sounded lush.
“I think you’re crazy, maybe.”
Then, a complete surprise to me, I heard a symphony orchestra tuning up, with some electronic bleeps and bloops that persisted for nearly 30 seconds. That’s definitely not something I’d heard on any other recording of Kid A, ever.
After 50 minutes, it was over. I had listened to the whole thing, from start to finish, without stopping. Did it give me a greater appreciation for the record? For albums in general? I’m actually not sure. But it was a transporting experience, and I heard new things that I hadn’t before.
Listening to Kid A on cassette, I was more committed to the music, and less receptive to other things that were vying for my attention that would probably have cheapened the experience.
Commitment. That’s something that should be made a bigger part of the music listening experience, regardless of the type of device being used. For me, the Walkmen helped to achieve it.
Now, time to check those emails.
[crossposted on Medium]