By: Eric Greenwood
Reading so much about Radiohead has almost made me as sick of them as critics are telling me I should be. However, listening to Amnesiac does nothing but brighten the band's star in my eyes. I love the fact that Radiohead is playing by its own rules. Bands with balls should be applauded- not excoriated for taking the road less traveled. How fun would it be – really – if Radiohead were to churn out another Ok Computer? It would invariably be a let down, and the public would yawn and move on to the next big thing. As it is now, Radiohead is confounding critics and even some fans while keeping its name firmly in print as this elusive, artistic entity.
Amnesiac does not deserve the damning by faint praise it's getting by churlish, bandwagon-esque critics. No, it's not the beautiful, emotionally dense epic that Ok Computer was (nor does it purport to be…), but it is indisputably better than the competition in the commercial arena (who's up for some Tool?) It sounds like an accidental compromise between Kid A's detached experimentation and Ok Computer's soaring melodrama. That's a compromise I'm more than happy to accept. Amnesiac does not sate the appetite of those searching for another life-changing album like Ok Computer, but how many times in a career does an album like that even happen? And what band could cope with that burden and still remain musically relevant? I think Radiohead is doing exactly what it has to do to keep itself interested in music as both a business and an art form.
“Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box” is a low-key opener. It's far less tense than “Everything In Its Right Place” off Kid A is, but it carries with it a similarly insular vibe. Some have presumed to think that Yorke is referencing a potential backlash with the lyric “after years of waiting nothing came”, which is supposed to mean that fans waiting for another Ok Computer will be disappointed with Amnesiac and/or Kid A. When Yorke hits the chorus (“I'm a reasonable man/get off my case”) over pattering electronic percussion, he tersely puts the issue to rest- at least for the moment. Reading too much into anyone's lyrics is a dangerous game, but even if you don't buy into the “rock stardom is such a chore" persona, it's still an intriguing theory.
“Pyramid Song” is simply gorgeous. A lilting piano line backs Yorke's pained inflection: “I jumped in the river/what did I see?/black-eyed angels swam with me.” The slow build is effective, as Yorke punches his voice to match the orchestral sweep. The melody is unforgettable, particularly when he sings “there was nothing to fear/nothing to doubt.” There's no real climax- the song simply threatens one, and it's that lingering threat that stays with you. “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” inhabits the sleepy, pulsating world of Kid A, where splintered, choppy vocals are looped on top of eerie trip-hop beats. It's competent mood music but somewhat soulless as a song. But who needs a soul when the mood is this good?
After a distorted and irritating vocal introduction, “You And Whose Army?” skips what should be the meat of the song and jumps straight into some kind of overly dramatic coda. Compositionally, it sounds half-baked, but the parts that are fleshed out are impressive nonetheless. Yorke has such astounding control over the tension in his voice- it's hard to complain about anything he does. I could listen to him whine and whimper all day. “I Might Be Wrong” may outstay its welcome, but that doesn't mean it's a throwaway. It should be one of those b-sides that's cherished by the loyal few that seek out the import singles. The blues riff and dub bass underscore Yorke's falsetto beautifully, but the song lacks energy and a proper progression. It meanders without change far too long. Sonically, it sounds amazing, but content-wise it seems lacking.
"Knives Out" is a misleading title. With all the rumors of a guitar-oriented "return to form" surrounding Amnesiac, I thought, surely, "Knives Out" would be an aggressive rocker, but, no, it's serene and sad, languishing in minor-keyed arpeggios and drowning in reverb. It's another gloriously plaintive ballad- a formula that Radiohead could never run into the ground nor I tire of. The reprise of Kid A's majestic "Morning Bell" (here in slightly altered form) is welcome- not only because it's one of the most lyrically genius break-up songs ever ("You can keep the furniture/a bump on the head…cut the kids in half"), but because the new version seems to stretch out and make you feel comfortable while Yorke waxes irreconcilable.
Not many male vocalists could sound so intimidating singing with a mock-string synth, but Yorke's natural intonation outshines even the splendor of machines. "Dollars & Cents" is dark and seductive. The bass line circles the melody like a vulture. Ironically, Yorke is belting out "why don't you quiet down" at the top of his lungs as the music rises to his threat, only to drop off completely. The blurring vocal effects are not off-putting as on Kid A; instead they add to York's already agonizing tone of voice. "Hunting Bears" is a fragment. Awkward, uncomfortable, and mysterious. It reminds me of The Cure's "A Reflection" off 17 Seconds. I half-expected to hear "Play For Today" burst out of its rapid dissolution.
The final two songs are the most experimental and unexpected. "Like Spinning Plates" sounds both triumphant and claustrophobic, if that makes any sense. The scuttling rhythms antagonize a morphing synth line as Yorke's voice is muffled and played backwards. The sense of foreboding is all consuming as Yorke mutters "my body is floating down the muddy river." "Life In A Glass House" ends Amnesiac on a drunken swagger of a note. The horns and flutes add a jaunty atmosphere to Yorke's paranoid lyrics: "well of course I'd like to sit around and chat/but someone's listening in."
Amnesiac is not Radiohead's best album; it's a snapshot of a very small part of the band's personality- the human side of Kid A. Amnesiac is confrontational, however- especially on a commercial level. It may be more human and song-oriented and approachable than Kid A is, but the guitars are still languishing in the background while the electronics steer the ship. This album should have been released before Kid A, so that the progression would make more sense. But trying to predict Radiohead's motives is futile and boring. I'd much prefer to sit back and soak it all up.