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'Throughline': 2 decades later have we caught up to Radiohead's prophetic vision?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

At the turn of the 21st century, the British rock band Radiohead released two albums - "Kid A" and "Amnesiac" - which reflected a world that seemed to face chaos. The hosts of Throughline, our friends Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei, have been revisiting the dread and anxieties contained in those albums. They've been speaking with Radiohead's Thom Yorke and Stanley Donwood.

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, BYLINE: The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman wrote a book in 1999 called "Liquid Modernity." In it, he argued that technology was advancing faster than culture could adapt to it. He said this cultural shakiness was causing people a ton of mental stress. Amid that shakiness, Radiohead created their album "Kid A" and its companion album "Amnesiac." They, in many ways, are the band of the turn of the millennium because they captured what that moment represented and what it felt like.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIOHEAD SONG, "MOTION PICTURE SOUNDTRACK")

STANLEY DONWOOD: It's a little bit like looking through an old photograph album that you'd forgotten you had.

RUND ABDELFATAH, BYLINE: This is Stanley Donwood, who created all the artwork for the band since 1994, including the album art for "Kid A."

DONWOOD: But as soon as you look at it, it becomes incredibly familiar, and you can remember all of the surrounding around that album.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Repeating, once again, our top story - Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev has been removed from power, and there are tanks now...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOTION PICTURE SOUNDTRACK")

RADIOHEAD: (Singing) Stop sending letters.

THOM YORKE: We're the children of the end of the Cold War, when there was no longer an enemy.

ABDELFATAH: This is Thom Yorke, the lead singer and a songwriter for the band.

YORKE: When there was no longer someone on the other side of that wall, that wall comes down.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The Berlin Wall doesn't mean anything anymore. The wall that the East Germans put up in 1961 to keep its people in will now be breached by anyone who wants to leave.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOTION PICTURE SOUNDTRACK")

RADIOHEAD: (Singing) White lies.

YORKE: Then...

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIOHEAD SONG, "MOTION PICTURE SOUNDTRACK")

YORKE: ...You're still left with this fear.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN")

DAVID LETTERMAN: I think about this. And what about this internet thing? Do you know anything about that?

BILL GATES: Sure.

LETTERMAN: What the hell is that exactly?

GATES: Well, it's become a place where people are publishing information.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COOLIO: If you ain't on the information superhighway, baby, where is you?

DONWOOD: What is this thing? What is this thing? How does this work?

ABDELFATAH: This was the time of the dot-com boom, where people were optimistic and excited about this new technology that everyone would be able to use.

DONWOOD: We definitely felt as if we were living in a world that previous generations just wouldn't have got.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIOHEAD SONG, "LIKE SPINNING PLATES")

DONWOOD: You know, the idea that history is over and everything is going to be fine. But it wasn't. Everything was fraying at the edges.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIKE SPINNING PLATES")

RADIOHEAD: (Singing) And this just feels like spinning plates.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: The refugees came through in 11 covered trucks. Here on these faces, these broken bodies, hard evidence of the previous day's Serb onslaught on Srebrenica.

DONWOOD: History is over.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: The world took a long time to realize that genocide had occurred in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica.

DONWOOD: Places that had been completely stable were suddenly, like, rent with the worst kind of interethnic violence. It was horrible.

YORKE: Who's making these decisions, and why are we not involved? Because especially our generation at that time, we were about to have children or were having children. We had some place in the hierarchy of things. We had some success. We had all these things. But at the same time, most of these important ethical decisions about, how does society look after its weakest? How does our society see itself in connection with the rest of Europe or the world or Kosovo or Africa?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: There have been massacres in plenty in the tortured history of Rwanda, but this was something different. This was genocide.

YORKE: Who's deciding this, and why the hell aren't they asking us?

So when we did - when we were working on "Kid A" and "Amnesiac," the shift was not necessarily one of just dread. There's two sorts of shift. There was the dread of the millennia coming up, but there was also a shift which was sort of saying, we now no longer have to talk about this. Everything's already been decided. You know, progress is what it is. There's nothing you can do.

The U.N. climate change report was 1994. And us being us, I think we would have read that probably.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IDIOTEQUE")

RADIOHEAD: (Singing) Ice age coming, ice age coming.

YORKE: The way I was working at the time was very much - lines would go into a hat and get taken out. And when they worked, they worked. So I can't tell you if...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IDIOTEQUE")

RADIOHEAD: (Singing) We're not scaremongering.

YORKE: ...I was trying to write a song about global warming. I very much doubt it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IDIOTEQUE")

RADIOHEAD: (Singing) Happening. Mobiles squerking (ph)...

YORKE: I think probably it was more like I was writing down my neurosis or I was listening - someone may have said, we're not scaremongering on the radio saying it or whatever. And then it gets absorbed and then comes out.

ARABLOUEI: In the album "Kid A," there is a constant sense of tension and questioning and examination of not just the state of the world, but the climate, the appeal of technology and how it seemed to have already swallowed us whole. It was an album that tried to snap you out of that trance. But Thom Yorke said it wasn't just about angst and dread. It was about projecting another world. It was, and still is, about possibilities.

YORKE: One has to imagine a form of progress or a form of living which is more beneficial to the way human beings want to be, rather than being reduced to these two-dimensional avatars that appear on your phone. Like, at the moment, we adopt modes of behavior that mirror our avatars. But we are, at the same time, now finally formulating ways to think beyond that and going, well, hang on a minute. I don't want to be that.

INSKEEP: Wow. Thom Yorke and Stanley Donwood with Throughline hosts Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.