Book reviews: Kid A Mnesia | Fear Stalks The Land

Two new books chart the intense creative relationship that developed between Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and artist Stanley Donwood. Review by Andrew Eaton-Lewis

Thom Yorke PIC: Valerie Macon/ AFP via Getty Images
Thom Yorke PIC: Valerie Macon/ AFP via Getty Images

How do you follow up one of the most successful and influential albums of the 1990s? If you’re Thom Yorke of Radiohead, the endless adulation for OK Computer fills you with so much “fierce anger and suspicion” you can hardly bear to make music anymore. Instead you seek refuge in an old art school friend, Stanley Donwood, who has been employed to design a sleeve for your next album but whose actual job appears to be to distract you from having to finish it.

Kid A Mnesia and Fear Stalks the Land – published to mark the 20th anniversary of Radiohead’s Kid A and Amnesiac albums – document a remarkably close collaboration forged as Yorke stubbornly abandoned the angst-ridden guitar songs that had made him a reluctant rock star in favour of angst-ridden electronica, krautrock and jazz. Most fans know how difficult these sessions were and how they nearly broke the band. Now it turns out that, as guitarist Ed O’Brien, bassist Coin Greenwood and drummer Phil Selway struggled to contribute to songs with no guitars, bass or drums, Yorke sometimes wasn’t recording music at all, retreating next door to create vast quantities of writing, drawing and painting with Donwood, mostly unseen until now.

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As Yorke admits in Kid A Mnesia, some of this behaviour was “completely out of proportion, deeply unhealthy” but in Donwood he found a creative kindred spirit to rival and perhaps eclipse his bandmates. We discover that the two would swap paintings half-way through, altering each other’s work until someone “won”. As Fear Stalks the Land reveals, they also wrote enough together to fill 165 pages of verse, lists, and diary 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 pieces of writing. There is much despair, black humour and violence, even more so than in the songs. Some fans will love it, others may roll their eyes at the verbosity.

Kid A Mnesia

The inclusion of actual album artwork, right at the end of Kid A Mnesia, is a startling reminder of how far Donwood went beyond what was strictly required. But if the whole project feels antiquated in its self-indulgence – who gets to do this on a major label payroll anymore? – the themes they were exploring (global warming, government surveillance, the corrosive power of the internet) are still strikingly relevant. As Yorke says, the point of being an artist “is to retain a beginner’s mind. The flailing around is the point.” There is much flailing around here, but the results – a number one, Grammy award-winning album, even some prescience 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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