With Amnesiac, Radiohead continues its experimentation, with mixed results
By Greg Kot
Tribune rock critic
June 3, 2001
2 of the great avant-garde rock experiment will take place Tuesday, when
Radiohead's Amnesiac (Capitol) arrives in
stores. It's expected to make a strong run at becoming the No. 1 album in the
country, and if it does, it will repeat the remarkable achievement of its
7-month-old predecessor, Kid A, one of the
most experimental rock albums ever to debut atop the U.S. pop charts.
Amnesiac has been widely available on the
Internet for several weeks, Radiohead is riding a wave of critical acclaim,
feverish fan anticipation and record-industry hype that virtually assures the
album's out-of-the-box success. That will be followed by one of the most
anticipated rock tours of recent summers, expected to hit Chicago on Aug. 1
(venue and ticket sale date have not been confirmed).
once fans spend time with Amnesiac, will
they feel rewarded? Amnesiac was supposed to
be the user-friendly twin of the sometimes confounding Kid
A. It was supposed to be the album that scooped up all the catchy pop
songs and guitar anthems left off its predecessor. It was supposed to reassure
fans who discovered the British quartet on the pop-friendly The
Bends (1995) or the masterful OK Computer
(1997) that Kid A was just a one-off
experiment, not the start of a new, more esoteric direction for the band.
it turns out, doesn't quite accomplish any of that -- nor was it ever intended
to, according to singer Thom Yorke. "I don't think Kid
A is so experimental," says the press-shy singer, who responded
to questions in an e-mail interview. "I think we're just getting warmed
Yorke suggests, Radiohead is a band with little interest in rehashing past
glories, a band that treats its commercial success as a license to experiment
further rather than as a winning formula that it must try to repeat. So
Radiohead deserves applause for once again challenging itself and its fans with Amnesiac,
but with a caveat: The artistic risks the band takes on the new album don't all
work. Amnesiac is far from a masterpiece on
the level of OK Computer, nor does it feel
as fresh and seamless as Kid A.
A, released last fall, succeeded completely on its own peculiarly
ambitious terms: a complete-in-one-sitting listening experience that was subtle,
spooky, disturbing and strange. If nothing else, Kid A
had to be acknowledged for its audacity. Here was a band with the world at its
feet that did exactly what the people entrusted with selling its records,
booking its tours and ensuring its (and their) financial success hoped it would
not do: quietly turn its back on everything that had made Radiohead popular. On Kid
A, the crashing guitars evaporated, the big emotional crescendos came
much less frequently, and Yorke's voice was distorted or simply cast adrift.
of those elements are back in place for Amnesiac,
which was written and recorded during the same sessions that produced Kid
A. Yorke is singing more, albeit with a sometimes ponderous
restraint, and the guitars reawaken on a few tracks. But Amnesiac
is erratic. It contains one of the finest pieces the band has ever recorded, the
gorgeous string-washed ballad, "Pyramid Song,"
and one of the worst, the sluggish Dixieland farce "Life
in a Glasshouse."
the band had considered releasing all the material as a double album, but Yorke
says the band would have been pilloried for self-indulgence. "They are
complementary [because] in some weird way I think Amnesiac
gives another take on Kid A, a form of
explanation," he says.
retrospect, however, it seems that combining the best material from both albums
would have made a more powerful statement. But somewhere in the midst of a
difficult recording session, perspective got lost.
had so many people expecting us to do the big guitar stadium record," says
guitarist Ed O'Brien in a phone interview from England. "But we were well
aware that's not the kind of place we inhabit very well. The time seemed right
to do the most challenging record we'd ever made."
climate around the band had changed. Radiohead went from a cult act to
international superstars with OK Computer,
even as they shunned the celebrity and hedonism associated with stardom. With a
sound that brought a sense of rapture to the guitar-rock anthem, the British
quintet beguiled fickle MTV addicts and hard-to-please underground music
aficionados alike. Like REM and Nirvana before them, Radiohead had become that
rarest of successes: a best-selling mainstream band that even fans of
non-mainstream music could root for.
wonder that countless Radiohead imitations were signed to recording contracts in
recent years. "This makes me feel ill," Yorke says of the quest to
find the "new Radiohead" at record companies. "We disappeared for
three years and moved on."
OK Computer was recorded with the band
playing in real time in the studio, then embellished with overdubs, both Kid
A and Amnesiac took raw musical
elements -- everything from offbeat percussion and warped keyboard sounds to a
string section -- and sculpted them into finished songs on computer.
had to come to grips with starting a song from scratch in the studio and making
it into something, rather than playing it live, rehearsing it and then getting a
good take of a live performance," O'Brien says. "None of us played
that much guitar on these records. Suddenly we were presented with the
opportunity and the freedom to approach the music the way [U.K. trip-hop group]
Massive Attack does: as a collective, working on sounds, rather than with each
person in the band playing a prescribed role. It was quite hard work for us to
adjust to the fact that some of us might not necessarily be playing our usual
instrument on a track, or even playing any instrument at all. Once you get over
your insecurities, then it's great."
insecurities led to some uneasy months in the studio, with Yorke in particular
pushing the band away from its old ways of working. Whereas O'Brien speaks of
more traditional rock influences such as Neil Young and the Pixies, Yorke cites
the early electronic experiments of German bands Can and Faust and the
compositions of Olivier Messiaen as laying the groundwork for Radiohead's future
difficult to still justify just being a rock band," he says. "Having
no musical and technological restrictions is going to change the way we feel
about music. Laptops are the new electric guitar, I reckon, though I still love
electric guitars, and drums, and singing ... and I don't disown our old stuff at
are traces of the old Radiohead in the more song-oriented middle section of Amnesiac.
A track such as "Knives Out," with its
undulating guitars and gently rolling melody, could have fit easily on The
Bends, and the coda of "You and Whose
Army?" is an OK Computer-worthy
anthem. Best of all, the towering "Pyramid Song,"
which begins as a piano-drums duet between Yorke and Phil Selway, enters the
stratosphere of Radiohead classics with Jonny Greenwood's string arrangement
swooning like an exotic tease.
too many songs overlap the experiments introduced on Kid
A and one track ("Morning Bell")
appears on both albums, albeit in different versions. The albums share a similar
structure, opening with mildly off-kilter tracks, injecting the most
pop-oriented tracks at the midway point, and winding down with instrumentals.
What sounded bold on Kid A now flirts with
self-indulgence, particularly the closing "Life in a
Glasshouse." At what could pass for a desultory New Orleans funeral
tune, Yorke is reduced to a whimper: "Is someone listening?"
of course they are. But Radiohead shrinks from the challenge offered by Yorke's
friend, U2's Bono, of "applying for the job of the world's greatest rock
band." Such talk makes Yorke shudder.
of that stuff is not interesting to us," he says. "Bono said to me
I'll be on the corner of the bar singing quietly into the mic while he's belting
it out demanding your attention -- that's quite right, I think."
what Radiohead appears most passionate about can't be defined by record sales.
Certainly Amnesiac contains few concessions
for radio programmers -- its most mainstream-leaning tracks still sound
otherworldly against most current pop and rock fare. Only diehard fans can be
expected to instantly warm to the album in its entirety; some will discover it
months, even years down the road; and most may give it a cursory listen and move
on, dismayed by the lack of instant comfort it provides. And that suits the band
just fine, O'Brien says.
does our music a lot of good having it out on Napster weeks before the album
comes out, because in many ways it takes a while for people to get used to
it," he says. "By the time the album comes out, our fans are used to
it. People who are into a band will download its music, but they'll also want to
own their own copy of the album. I'd be worried if we were a straight-ahead pop
band, where you hear a song 10 times and you don't really want to hear it again.
But I've got confidence in our music, that there is enough depth and breadth
there to survive anything
Thom Yorke (left) and pals spin anticommercialism into platinum. In
a time when Radiohead lite is everywhere, the lords
of British art-rock pick up where they left off on last October's spacey Kid
A, a triumphantly weird, oft-maligned disc. It came out at No. 1 on
the charts despite its heavy reliance on a digital toy box of blips and chords
generated at random.
a band to bend to criticism, Radiohead revs up its chain saw with more tunes for
the anti-commercial masses. "Push Pull Revolving
Doors" and "Life in a Glasshouse,"
with their eerie, unpredictable blends of electronica and jazz, were recorded in
the Kid A
sessions, and on the uniquely titled "Packed Like
Sardines in a Crushed Tin Box," moody frontman Thom Yorke repeats,
"I'm a reasonable man/ Get off my case, get off my case" to a pulsing
backbeat. Other songs, though, return to the more straightforward guitar rock of
Radiohead's earlier work, while the first single, "Pyramid
Song," is a strings-laden poem that finds Yorke in fine lamenting
form ("There's nothing to feel, nothing at all"). The instrumental
"Hunting Bears" shows off the band's
polished, if underused, acoustic chops. Despite the dizzying angst on Amnesiac,
Radiohead never loses its balance on the edge.
Line: More Kid stuff
(Parlophone) - Released 4th June
it was wishful thinking on someone’s part or somebody’s idea of a joke, but
if you swallowed all those stories about Amnesiac
being a return to a ‘traditional’ Radiohead sound, or a more ‘accessible
and commercial’ venture after the oblique Kid
A, you’re in for a surprise. If anything
‘Amnesiac’ takes the band’s wilful perversity to greater heights/depths.
Put it this way, ‘Pyramid
Song’ is the most obvious single here by a
What separates Amnesiac from Kid A is that last year’s album, although widely anticipated as a radical departure from the norm, was a surprise. This is near enough ‘Kid A Part II’ and may be a greater test of fans’ patience and loyalty. It is, perhaps, easier to listen to inasmuch as it tends to hang on an easier groove; the dub and funk undercurrents are more relaxed, Thom’s voice now taking on a dreamier, less confused tone. Tracks like ‘You and Whose Army?’ for instance sound almost like 1930s dancehall easy listening transposed into the 21st Century via Seefeel’s laboratory in the clouds. Elsewhere the likes of ‘Knives Out’ and ‘Dollars and Cents’, hailed around the time of Kid A as more typically song-based are shadowy wraiths, existing in a sort of netherworld of dissolute electronica, dark, swooning classical passages and extremely stoned funk. They’re not machines and they’re definitely not averse to the odd spliff, Radiohead.
Radiohead’s central tenet that traditional song-orientated, guitar-based music is redundant is carried further on Amnesiac than ever before. Sometimes they take it too far: the ponderous, ennui-fuelled ‘Hunting Bears’ and the pointless remodelling of ‘Morning Bell’ for example seem to exist merely to fill space; elsewhere, notably ‘Like Spinning Plates’, they show that they are capable of creating a raw, haunting atmosphere.
Still, it all depends on what you consider a ‘proper’ song is. The awesome ‘Pyramid Song’ is no ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’, but, like ‘Paranoid Android’ before it, its sheer twisted majesty and power comes bearing down on you like an unstoppable slow-motion avalanche, while ‘Pull Pulk Revolving Doors’ steals its beats from underground hip hop masters like Hoodlum Priest and twists and sours them accordingly. Equally, Amnesiac's coda, ‘Life In A Glasshouse’, featuring legendary jazz trumpeter Humphrey Lyttleton, is devilishly sly - Radiohead writing their own funeral march in a New Orleans jazz style. It’s maybe pertinent to ask if they’re simply taking the piss on occasions but Radiohead, utterly unlike anyone else on or anywhere near their level, really do seem to care about trying to unlock new doors. If they don’t always succeed - and Amnesiac is most certainly a difficult, flawed album - then at least they fail strangely and heroically. Can you even start to imagine Limp Bizkit trying anything so crazy as to disregard everything that made them successful in the first place?
Ultimately Amnesiac succeeds, despite its faults, because it shows a band cynical, disgusted, undaunted and enthusiastic enough about music to try it on, test people’s patience and damn the consequences. While Stereophonics are still discovering, and copying, Bob Dylan, while Oasis are proudly announcing that their next album will be more of the same (again) and while U2 have finally turned into the stadium rock Aha, Radiohead are deep sea diving on Jupiter by comparison. Apparently Muse are thinking of buying a synthesizer.
Reviewed: July 2001
Genre: Rock Duration: 0 min 0 secs Label:
PARLOPHONE Release Date: 04-Jun-2001 Key
Tracks: You & Whose Army, Knives Out, Pyramid
Song, Life In A Glasshouse Let us, with a wobbly dissolve, revisit
September 2000. It is raining like a bastard. Concert-goers are returning from
the Newport show that heralds the release of Radiohead’s Kid
A, raving about two songs, Knives Out
and You & Whose Army?, easily the most robust
of the eerie new pieces premiered. They wend homewards, agreeing that the new
tunes sound weird but good, but that they prefer the ones with the drums and
guitars to the ones where Jonny Greenwood twiddles his FX knobs and Thom Yorke
plays the spinet. That Knives
Out and You & Whose Army? did not make
it onto the delicate, Tiny Tim Cratchitt of an album that emerged seemed
evidence enough of Radiohead’s commercial death wish. When it was hinted that
these songs would form the centrepiece of a follow-up LP, possibly as early as
April 2001, disappointment gave way to anticipation. Subsequently, heroically,
Tiny Tim dragged his be-calipered leg to the top of the US albums chart; in
Britain he had been forgotten already. And why? Because Amnesiac
was coming. No album of the modern pop era has overshadowed its predecessor as
ominously as Amnesiac. Kid
A’s obstetrician had barely slapped its arse than its five fathers
had stubbed out their cigars and set about plugging its sibling. Amnesiac,
in the words of Ed O’Brien, would comprise songs that “didn’t fit” on Kid
A. Nobody imagined this meant songs like The Lambeth Walk or Black
Dog or I’m Horny (Horny, Horny Horny), but the presumption was that this would
be more of a rock band record with some big old tunes.
Well, forget that. Amnesiac is a
companion work to Kid A in the way that
David Bowie’s “Heroes” complements Low or (steady, now) King Crimson’s
In The Wake Of Poseidon echoes In The Court Of The Crimson King. As per Kid
A, it opens with the track most overtly influenced by radical techno
music, and, in a move that dooms the two records to be forever spoken of in the
same breath, both pivot on a version of Morning Bell
(in this instance entitled The Morning Bell Amnesiac),
more of which later. Amnesiac is similarly
shy, textural and embroidered by electronica, but where it differs vitally from Kid
A is in being 1) better balanced, 2) more emotionally intelligible
and 3) even more grimly beautiful. “We all went to heaven in a little row
boat,” Yorke warbles, remembering the children’s skipping song, Tom
Waits’s Clap Hands or (and we would pay money for this to be true) the Belle
Stars’ The Clapping Song. A superb Eastern string melody is tossed away as a
chord turnaround and drummer Phil Selway cranks the beauty and anguish up and
down with each patter and tish. Yorke played this live, alone, at the piano at a
1999 Amsterdam show, only then it was called Nothing To
Fear. There weren’t a lot of people dancing.
Either Yorke’s lyrics are better this time, or the comparative
voluptuousness of the vocal performances make it easier to tune in, or we’ve
finally grasped what he’s been getting at since abandoning OK
Computer’s more straightforward man-vs-society musings.
Accidentally, perhaps, Amnesiac is an
incremental, song-by-song construction of a dream realm full of implied horror,
reinforced by nursery rhyme, kiddie phrases and musical irony. Indicative of the
latter is Pull Pulk Revolving Doors, where
Yorke’s treated voice struggles against hard, ragged-edged beats to deliver
what at first seems a banal list. “There are sliding doors and there are
secret doors,” he monotones. “There are doors that lock and doors that
don’t, there are doors that let you in and out but never open, but there are
trapdoors…” At which the bottom falls out of the music and we are left
plummeting through space. There
isn’t a band around who can mock, frame, comment upon or elucidate the
activities of their singer better than Radiohead. So it’s a shame we don’t
hear more of O’Brien, Selway and the Greenwoods. Arguably, Amnesiac’s
central troika of You And Whose Army?, I
Might Be Wrong (the first US single) and Knives Out could be their
partial retort to this post-Kid A gripe.
Guitars are certainly more prominent in this selection, not only in Thom
Yorke’s étude, Hunting Bears, but also in the
grainy blues riff that drives I Might Be Wrong and
Jonny Greenwood’s delay pedal-picking that embroiders Knives
Out, the album’s best ensemble piece and a close relative of Paranoid
Android. Like You
And Whose Army?, Knives Out’s lyric is a
collage of playground taunts. As before, we cannot know how serious the narrator
is or what real-life nastiness the flippancy masks: “Cook him up, squash his
head, put him in the pot.” Ewww. Two
thirds in and so far, so good but, really, what are we to make of The Morning
Bell Amnesiac? Did Thom Yorke run out of songs? Probably not, as
there’s still no room for Big Boots, one of the
band’s most anticipated works-in-progress. Here it’s darker, more funereal
and organic than its Kid A cousin, and what sounded
like “cut the kids’ hair” on Kid A is now unarguably “cut the kids in
half”, Yorke making the song much more transparently about divorce. Perhaps
this is Radiohead telling us that they are now a jazz band, offering
“interpretations”. And the
rest? Dollars & Cents is an over-long attempt
to employ a string section, hinting at the mad crescendos of Miles Davis’s
Bitches Brew, but actually the first to bite the dust in the Compile One Album
Out Of Kid A And Amnesiac
pub game that won’t be sweeping the nation this month. Like
Spinning Plates is a buzzing technofied vignette promoted to a status
beyond its means. Hunting Bears you know about. Life
In A Glasshouse is Amnesiac’s final
revelation: a Humphrey Lyttelton-enhanced New Orleans funeral march with Yorke
delineating the demise of a passionate friendship in this new, half-symbolic way
of his. It is brilliant music ending a largely fine record and – even better
– it has a ring of truth about it. So where does Amnesiac
leave the Radiohead project? As an exercise in de-branding, it’s going
swimmingly. They’ve deconstructed their rock bandness and their appeal is
becoming more selective. Maybe this will make them happy. Meanwhile, Yorke
sounds as bereft as Bono at the end of Pop or Ian Curtis at the end of Closer.
In Amnesiac, he has built a vision of hell:
numb, petty, desolate and with no obvious escape route. Party on, Thom. Reviewed
by Danny Eccleston
Set Summer Tour
Amnesiac to be backed with full North American tour
Radioheading out on the road Radiohead have set a nineteen date summer tour behind their fifth album, Amnesiac, their second album in the past eight months. Though the band released Kid A last fall, they only played a handful of shows in support of the album.
kick off their North American tour on June 18th in Texas and wrap things up on
August 20th in Los Angeles, before heading over to Ireland and Japan for a few
dates. Along the way, the band will return to their hometown of Oxford, England
for a show on July 7th. Amnesiac is
due in stores on June 5th.
Houston, C.W. Mitchell Pavilion
6/19: Denver, Red Rocks Amphitheater
6/23: Seattle, The Gorge
6/24: Vancouver, Thunderbird Stadium
6/26: San Francisco, Shoreline Amphitheater
6/27: Mountain View, CA, Shoreline Amphitheater
6/29-30: Santa Barbara, CA, Santa Barbara Bowl
8/1: Chicago, Soldier Field
8/3: Toronto, Molson Park
8/5: Montreal, Park Jean Drapeu
8/7: Cleveland, Blossom Music Center
8/9: Philadelphia, TBA
8/11-12: Washington, DC, Bull Run
8/14: Boston, Suffolk Downs
8/16-17: New York, Liberty State Park
8/20: Los Angeles, Hollywood Bowl
(May 2, 2001)
AMNESIAC REVIEW - SPIN - issue
BANGERS AND MASH Radiohead serve up the warm and fuzzy By Sasha Frere-Jones RADIOHEAD Amnesiac (Capitol) 7/10
Where should Radiohead sit? There's only room for so many huge groups at any one time, so they must be taking somebody's place. Or are they? U2, aside from not going away, are ballsy and Big Picture; R.E.M. had the dirty windshields and androgynous boss but hid actual songs under the not-actual words; and the oft-invoked Pink Floyd, despite similar me-against-the-Machine whinging, unabashedly provided arena-rock pleasures. Radiohead are nothing if not abashed. So what do they sell? Mot majestic beauty (Sigur Rós do that better), or majestic dread (Godspeed You Black Oak Arkansas! bring that noise), and certainly not physical rock action (Beyoncé Knowles, High on Fire, and Ludacris all beat them). Then what are they good at? Pretty? Definitely, but it's more than that. Comfort, which means they neither displace nor extend anybody's legacy. Radiohead are turning down the bed in your head, switching off the lights, and giving you the chance to work it all out.
Thom Yorke says it himself in Amnesiac's 'Dollars & Cents': "Why don't you quiet down?" Panicky folks everywhere identify with Yorke's lullaby to himself, that sonorous breeze going forever through his nose. He makes a sound to make it all right and throws in words to give the sound something to hold on to. The fact that his hopelessly vague lyrics don't even qualify as good collage makes content the listener's problem. But Radiohead don't sell insight or a worldview; Kid A and now, eight months later, Amnesiac are lullabies for the compressed present--the time and space of a nervous car trip. They're just trying to get home in one piece, life is but a dream. Fa fa fa. Blip blip.
If the aesthetic is fuzzy, the marketing has been fleet and mutable. Radiohead drive quickly to market, yet no one's at the wheel! They tour! But they won't send out advances to the press! But they encourage kids to listen to the shows on Napster! They seem friendly! But Yorke speaks in riddles! They're old fashioned, woodshedding Big Pink-in' rockers! No, they're cyber-happy, Pro Toolin' future freaks! The new record is going to be like OK Computer! Maybe not!
Maybe not. How about Kid B? Check the sequencing, same as last year's: frosty electro track with annoying catchphrase followed by glitches and warps, saved in the middle by catchy bits, finished with symphonic slide home. With the exception of 'I Might Be Wrong,' a delicious, interlocking banger with modest disco roofing honest-to-goodness chord changes, and 'Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors,' a bumping filterfest of drums, the tempo circle here is unbroken. Call 'em slow jams, call 'em ballads--hell call 'em salads.
The murmuring leadoff track, 'Packt Like Sardines in a Crushed Tin Box,' could be a kiss-off to every patient fan: "After years of waiting / Nothing Came / I'm a reasonable man / Get off my case, get off my case [ad infinitum]." Stop sweatin' the T-Boogie! And, for that matter, stop sweating altogether! 'Pyramid Song' is stoned Elton John produced by David Axelrod and features many iterations of the word nothing. (When Yorke finds a word he likes, he lets you know lets you know.) And this is how Amnesiac goes, or doesn't: Resonant, dusty somethings, not much of their own, line up and aggregate into something fluid and sweetly steady. 'Amnesiac/Morning Bell' is a slippery version of Thom in his Throes, bells a-ringing through the good swoon, and 'Like Spinning Plates' finds Radiohead's keyboards finally sounding as expressive as their guitars used to.
But you've always got Yorke in the mix, doggedly saying what little he has to say, language be damned. (The closing song is actually about people who live in glass houses. I am not making this up.) He remains unknowable, yet he manages to reassure us, popping out for a few minutes to intone dysfunctionally, then receding to let the technocrats take over....
Hold the line. Thom Yorke is George W. Bush.
Both mollify their fans by mumbling endless variations on "I don't know." Both lend trifles weight by draaaawwwing theeemm ouuutt. Both have put up baffling numbers.
Okay, enough of that. I enjoy this record a lot more than the arsenic in my drinking water or the annoying booger of hype stuck to this band's forehead. Fact is, Radiohead records work, often despite Sir Thom's mooning about, sometimes because of Sir Thom's commitment to dreamy goo. When you get into the 16-year-old headspace of a true Moody Gus, it's hard to get out. (Especially if you're 32.) Kid A and Amnesiac, even more so, honor that feeling formally, abandoning verse-chorus-verse motion to let the tracks just roll out, like bolts of cloth, detail accruing like fuzz on a sweater. Nothing sudden, nothing jarring--just work it out.
AMNESIAC REVIEW - ALTERNATIVE PRESS - issue
#156 July 2001
Radiohead Amnesiac 9/10 by Hobey Echlin
How to reappear a little more sweetly.
Radiohead's Kid A was last year's perfect letdown, if only for the fact that it showed arguably the world's greatest band twiddling knobs and farting around with half-baked Aphex Twin ideas, talking about how much they didn't want to be the world's greatest band anymore. While there was something kind of spot-on and poignant to Kid A's post-everything tomes of detachment and dissolving identity, Amnesiac is actually good, not just important. The 1 1 cuts here, recorded during the same sessions that yielded Kid A, still have that air of experimentation to them. Sometimes it's doomed, as in the Kraftwerk-on-NyQuil 'Push Pull Revolving Doors' or the bluesy, marble-mouthed run-on "I Might Be Wrong." But, more often than not, Amnesiac finds a balance between twiddling and transcendence. The opener, "Packed Like Sardines In A Crushed Tin Can," finds Thom Yorke's croon somberly somersaulting along to a big ol' bass melody over a subdued electro beat, his refrain of "get off my case" setting up the hushed hook over and over. Yorke is still MIA, but at least there is action; on "You And Whose Army," he sounds passed out on the mic; on "Like Spinning Plates" he's brilliantly oblivious to the Philip Glass-in-dub backing track. Amnesiac (like Heroes-era David Bowie) seems at first a radical departure, but it winds up being quintessentially Radiohead, full of existential rock songs powered by Yorke's delicate, aching, soaring vocals, with the twiddly studio-gizmo voodoo as the band's newest and most outspoken member.
In between arena tours and Number One
albums, Radiohead want to get away from it all. Not a week in Goa or a summer in
Provence but a more complete escape: oblivion. The songs on Amnesiac
contemplate suicide, divorce, paranoia and mysterious disappearances, and the
music follows them into the ether.
Amnesiac is the work of a band determined to pursue its most wayward and musicianly impulses wherever they might lead. As such, it's clear proof that the progressive-rock impulse survived the twentieth century. On Amnesiac, which was made during the same recording sessions that yielded Kid A last year, Radiohead have set out to erase all that their listeners once expected. Acting like a bunch of artists - not, as in most current rock, a business consortium touting a consistent product - Radiohead continue to slough off the style that made them standard-bearers for anthemic Brit pop in the 1990s.
They started on Kid A by masking their old identity as a guitar-driven, big-crescendo rock band, and with Amnesiac they have gone on to dismantle whatever they might have taken for granted about songs themselves. All that's left to signify Radiohead is Thom Yorke's pained high-tenor voice, moving ever closer to the end of his tether. In "Dollars and Cents," which bitterly rejects commercial advice, he moans, "Let me out of here," murmuring as if he can barely remember how to shape human words, while the chords behind him waver between major and minor, perpetually unsettled.
Amnesiac is full of computerized clicks and hums - the kinds of tracks made by geeks alone with their gizmos - and of instruments and voices so heavily filtered they sound alienated even from themselves. Only one song, "Knives Out," presents itself as real-time music for Radiohead's guitars (Yorke, Ed O'Brien and Jonny Greenwood), bass (Colin Greenwood) and drums (Phil Selway). More often, the camaraderie implied by a band is replaced by the sense that each arrangement is a private delusion or a barely overheard conspiracy.
The human touch and its visceral impact are no longer central to the music. The songs on Amnesiac are barely populated vistas, subdued and ambient but not at all soothing. Electric guitars are scarce, and never heroic. Instead, there are semiautomatic rhythm loops, indecipherable background voices, pockets of static, and writhing string arrangements with electronic penumbrae. And when the band does write a melody with a grand arc, the arrangements leave Yorke sounding not triumphant but stranded.
Radiohead's career has been a pilgrimage into isolation. Back in 1993, when they were inventing themselves as the sociopath's answer to U2, they could at least imagine an infatuation with a "special" girl in "Creep." By the time Radiohead made their big statement about technology and dehumanization on OK Computer in 1997, characters in the songs were seesawing between megalomania and anomie. With Kid A three years later, the songs craved escape from all remnants of human society, taking refuge in bunkers and abysses, mathematical riff patterns and equalizer tweaks. "I'm not here," Yorke sang. "This isn't happening." Yet once the initial disorientation wore off, the drama of Radiohead's melodies still came through.
On Amnesiac, the band is attacking those melodies. In "Pull/Pulk Revolving Doors," Yorke's pitch-shifted speaking voice lists various doors above a battered, muffled, half-reversed rhythm sequence. "Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box," in which a man contemplates a wasted life, squashes a potential dance track into shallow clanks and ticks, then defaces it with blobs of dissonance and feedback.
Amnesiac can, inevitably, be heard as leftovers from Kid A. (As daring as Radiohead were at the time, they weren't about to release a double album.) "Morning Bell Amnesiac" is an alternate, more desperate version of Kid A's divorce song "Morning Bell," this time with instruments dissolving into disharmony as if drowned in acid rain. As in Kid A's "The National Anthem," jazz musicians are on hand for "Life in a Glasshouse," providing something like a New Orleans dirge as Radiohead express a peculiar fear for a rock band: "There's someone listening in." The album feels slightly padded, but in its better songs, Radiohead subtly extend themselves. A few discs ago, "Pyramid Song" might have been a straightforward march, which would have been perfectly adequate for the Egyptian funeral suggested by the lyrics. Now, its timing undulates and breathes, with piano chords pausing to make room for moaning strings while Yorke's vocal hovers like a ritual chant. "I Might Be Wrong" takes a bluesy guitar lick - itself a rarity for Radiohead - and enmeshes it in lowdown funk, mixing handmade and programmed riffs that transform its uncertainties into cross-rhythms. It's like ZZ Top kidnapped by Autechre.
Amnesiac saves Yorke's sweetest croon and its most luminous, Beatlesque melody (complete with a "Hey Jude" buildup) for "You and Whose Army?," the honeyed sneer of a band that intends to hold the world at bay. So far, so good; true to the better impulses of progressive rock, Radiohead turn most of their self-indulgences into advances.
Radiohead were fascinated by trapdoors when they recorded Kid A and Amnesiac, ready to fall into unknown possibilities. "Trapdoors that open, I spiral down," Yorke sang on Kid A's "In Limbo," while Amnesiac's "Pull/Pulk Revolving Doors," considers "trapdoors that you can't come back from." With Amnesiac, Radiohead tumble further away from their old reflexes. The next album will tell whether the trapdoor has shut behind them.
(RS 871 - June 21, 2001)