In this series, we take a deep dive into a significant song from the past and get to the heart of what makes it so great. Today, we revisit the opening track of Radiohead’s 2000 masterwork, a startling document of mental disarray and a crucial turning point for a band on the verge of a breakdown.
Everything was not in its right place – that much was obvious. Following the international success and widespread critical acclaim of their landmark 1997 album OK Computer, the members of Radiohead were emotionally fatigued as a result of extensive touring and wholly disillusioned with rock n’ roll and the culture surrounding it. Thom Yorke had suffered a near-breakdown – multiple breakdowns, actually. “When I was a kid, I always assumed that [fame] was going to answer something – fill a gap,” he admitted much later. “And it does the absolute opposite. It happens with everybody. I was so driven for so long, like a fucking animal, and then I woke up one day and someone had given me a little gold plate for OK Computer and I couldn’t deal with it for ages.”
He ended up buying a house in Cornwall, scribbling away at his sketchbook, day in and day out. He didn’t have a guitar with him – the thought of even picking one up mortified him. “I was allowed to play the piano and that was it, because that was all we had in the house,” he continued. “I did that for a few months and I started to tune back into why I’d started doing it… I remember having nothing in the house, except a Yamaha grand piano. Classic. And the first thing I wrote was ‘Everything in Its Right Place’.”
It’s almost impossible to imagine what that version sounded like – there are covers on YouTube, but even when Yorke performed the track on BBC Radio 1’s Piano Sessions in 2018, he refrained from taking the obvious route of playing it on a grand piano. Acoustic live performances of the track do exist, and they’re great, but only because you can hear the warped echo of the studio version in your head. Suffice to say, producer Nigel Godrich was not impressed with Yorke’s piano rendition of the song. Radiohead worked on it together in Copenhagen and Paris in a conventional band arrangement for a while, but to no avail. One night, Yorke and Godrich decided to transfer the song to a Prophet-5 synthesiser, a popular analog instrument that was widely used in horror movie soundtracks in the 80s and was also featured on songs by superstars like Michael Jackson and Madonna.
Notably, it was also used by one of the band’s formative influences, Talking Heads, whose 1980 album Remain in Light was a massive reference point for Kid A. But at the time, Yorke was immersing himself in an entirely different genre of music, listening almost exclusively to Warp artists like Aphex Twin and Autechre. What resonated with him about the music, he explained in an interview with The Guardian, was that it was “all structures and had no human voices in it.” Though Yorke’s voice does appear on ‘Everything in its Right Place’, it’s heavily manipulated, chopped up, and distorted to the point of being nearly unrecognizable. His intention for the whole album was for his voice to serve the same purpose as any other instrument rather than being placed at the forefront – and nowhere is this artistic choice more evident than on the album’s opener, where it’s subtly suffused into the song’s muffled textures and glitchy electronics.
As if Radiohead weren’t already subject to immense external pressures, tensions started rising within the group, too. This wasn’t something new for the band, but so much of the media narrative surrounding Kid A revolved around how creative differences nearly broke them up – which makes sense, considering this was a group with three guitarists who had just started working on an album that was shaping up to be mostly electronic. Yorke was not shy about how heated things had gotten, but refused to spill out any details. In retrospect, though, that part of the story seems trivial compared to what they managed to achieve in spite of those differences. There were fears that Yorke might quit the band to pursue a solo career; twenty years later, all but one member of the band (Colin Greenwood) have embarked on their own solo endeavours, yet Radiohead remains just as big of an institution.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Whatever expectations fans had set up for Kid A, ‘Everything in Its Right Place’ was undeniably a startling introduction to the album. Reactions from both fans and critics were mixed. Naming the track as one of the best of the decade, Pitchfork’s Grayson Currin put it like this: “Sure, Thom Yorke had struggled with fandom and fame touring behind the monumental OK Computer, but what was this shit?” Forget about everything being in its right place – where was everything? This was minimal bordering on ambient, and whatever subtle flourishes crept into the mix seemed randomly assembled rather than carefully calculated. And what had happened to Thom Yorke’s voice? What the hell was he saying? Of course, the guy previously sang about “the unborn chicken voices in [his] head,” but this was approaching new levels of weirdness (“Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon”), and, worse, abstraction (“There are two colours in my head”). A lot of people, including Nigel Godrich, thought he must have lost his marbles.
I’m too young to remember any of this, but the response to Kid A is almost as an integral part of its narrative as the story behind its creation. And then there was the discourse – that, for better or for worse, I have not been able to evade. In fact, Brice Ezell makes the compelling case that too much of the acclaim the album got was centered around narrative; simply put, “Kid A is more fun to think and write about than it is to actually listen to.” This is partly because it marked a turning point in Radiohead’s career, but also because of its symbolic significance in the wider socio-political context of its time and beyond. It described the feelings of alienation, technoparanoia, and eco-anxiety that would become prevalent in the new millennium, while also protesting against the threats of globalization and authoritarianism in a way that only feels more prescient now.
Like OK Computer, Kid A felt less like a nightmarish dystopia of the future than a chilling evocation of the present. But by the time of the album’s release, many of the fears the band had laid down with regards to technology had begun to materialize, and ironically, it was the internet that played a crucial role in breaking away from the traditional promotion cycle they desperately wanted to avoid. Growing increasingly resentful of the press, Radiohead and their label, Capitol, used an innovative marketing campaign that involved sending out “iBlips” that could be embedded in both online publications and fan sites and allowed users to preorder and stream the album. Three weeks before its release, however, Kid A was leaked online and distributed via Napster, a peer-to-peer file-sharing network; Yorke, who later described Spotify as “the last desperate fart of a dying corpse”, was less critical of Napster, saying it “encourages enthusiasm for music in a way that the music industry has long forgotten to do.”
In his new book about Kid A, rock critic Steven Hyden delves into the ways in which the internet “fostered the widespread communication breakdown that Kid A signalled”. In other words, the album was experienced largely online, dissected first by fans in message boards and then by online reviews like the infamously overwritten 10.0 Pitchfork piece that helped popularize the site. But, to return to Ezell’s point, when part of what defines the album goes beyond the music, how much of that enthusiasm is actually about it?
Here’s the thing: all of that discourse was as alien to me going into Kid A as those jittery sounds were to most fans. Knowing little about the history of the band, I was simply looking for more music to enjoy from the band – and as soon as that arpeggio on ‘Everything In its Right Place’ trickled in, I was mesmerized. I can’t weigh in on whether those first five notes were the sound of Radiohead welcoming you to the new millennium or whatever, but I will say they made everything that followed on the album sound a lot more welcoming. ‘Everything In Its Right Place’, to me, felt less like a radical departure than a natural continuation of what I already loved about the band’s music, but presented in an entirely different yet fascinating package. Everything truly felt in its right place, but I couldn’t exactly pinpoint why. Like Thom Yorke, though, I felt “just as emotional about it as I’d ever felt about guitar music.”
It’s not like no one had done this before; Yorke’s inspirations, from krautrock to ambient music, were clear, and Radiohead were far from the first rock band to embrace left-field electronics. But if there’s a reason it worked for them better than it had for others, it was because some essence of the band didn’t just remain but was also amplified as a result of that experimentation. Besides, what the band was doing simply wasn’t that far off from what was already familiar to most people. The minimalist composer Steve Reich, who reinterpreted the track for his 2014 album Radio Rewrite, explained it like this: “Well, it’s three-chord rock but it’s not, it’s very unusual. It was originally in F minor, and it never comes down to the one chord, the F minor chord is never stated. So there’s never a tonic, there’s never a cadence in the normal sense, whereas in most pop tunes it will appear, even if it’s only in passing.”
At the risk of sounding pretentious, something about Reich’s observation made me think of the concept of the uncanny valley – the structures almost resemble pop, but they’re not. There’s certainly something uncanny about the track as a whole, from its dreamlike, haunting qualities to the way Yorke’s voice oscillates between being robotic and profoundly human. Ten years ago, Timothy Gabriele wrote an article entitled ‘The Degeneration of the Voice in Radiohead’s ‘Kid A’’ about how the manipulation of Yorke’s voice was a means through which he could dissociate from the mythology surrounding his image, as well as the middle-class miserablism it had come to represent. “I couldn’t stand the sound of me,” he told The Wire in 2001. It could also be, Gabriele argued, a reflection of the loss of self that occurs in late capitalism; like Yorke, people had lost control of their own voice, disembodied from their own narrative and place in society.
Listening to ‘Everything In Its Right Place’, though, also feels like sifting through Thom Yorke’s disorienting mental state. Though he refused to identify the lyrics and instructed fans not to pay attention to them, he was also opposed to the idea that it was all gibberish. As vague as they are, they also elicit an intensely specific mood: in an interview with Rolling Stone, Yorke said the song was partly based on a moment of paralysis following a 1997 concert at the NEC Arena in Birmingham. “I came off at the end of that show, sat in the dressing room and couldn’t speak,” he remembered. “I actually couldn’t speak. People were saying, ‘You all right?’ I knew people were speaking to me. But I couldn’t hear them. And I couldn’t talk. I’d just so had enough. And I was bored with saying I’d had enough. I was beyond that.”
The song doesn’t just describe that experience; it recreates it. “What, what is that you tried to say?” he repeats over and over, his voice enveloped by distorted echoes that threaten to overtake him. Even when consumed by its own fragments, though, Yorke’s real voice still remains at the center of the song’s orbit. Unlike ‘Fitter Happier’ from OK Computer, which used a synthesized voice to underscore the absurdity of its own idealist manisfesto, ‘Everything In Its Right Place’ centers on a distinctly human voice striving for normality – not perfection – amidst all the chaos.
Rather than moving further towards a point of resolution, however, the song, and the album as a whole, only descends further into paranoia. It sounds more like being stuck in a circle, which is fitting, considering that Yorke was experiencing writer’s block at the time. “I always used to use music as a way of moving on and dealing with things,” he explained. In the song, however, moving forward feels like an active struggle – which may have something to do with Reich’s observation that the song never comes down to the one chord, giving off the impression of being trapped in a loop of hopelessness and isolation.
As bleak and ominous as ‘Everything In Its Right Place’ sounds, it never succumbs to that complete loss of identity, and neither does it negate the possibility of finding peace. Even as it distorts its own sense of tranquility, there’s still something deeply cathartic about it. Yorke’s voice might have sounded nothing like what people associated it with, but instead of making him disappear, this new approach allowed him to look further inwards, revealing even more complexities not just about his own personal state but also that of the world around him. It became the defining statement of the album, so much so that it seems impossible to imagine Kid A’s existence without it – which isn’t necessarily the case for all its tracks, as ingenious as they may be. In fact, it’s hard to contextualize the rest of Radiohead’s entire catalogue without this song. You don’t have to see it as part of a narrative for its brilliance to shine through, but placing it in a broader context does make things seem a bit less depressing. Kid A is a document of anxious disarray, but ‘Everything In Its Right Place’ opened the door for the band to reinvent themselves and find new ways to communicate their distress. As it turned out, everything didn’t have to be in its right place in order to feel right.