If Kid A sounded like a band phoning it in from Antarctica, then Amnesiac reassured everyone that everything was still OK in Radiohead world. Surprisingly, Kid A was the group’s first number one album in the US, incredible considering how anti-commercial that LP really was, with its bleak, computerised soundscapes and melancholic overtones. After the immense popularity of The Bends and OK Computer, a sense of self doubt had firmly established itself within Thom Yorke’s psyche. As if the more fame you threw at him, the more critical he became of himself. And now with millions of people looking to the singer for answers, desperate for the next pop panacea, Yorke retreated from the world, looking for answers of his own.
Amnesiac was released just eight months after its more difficult sibling, although both were conceived during the same period. All in all Radiohead had recorded some thirty songs, a staggering sum for a group who admitted to suffering from writers block.
First up is “Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box”, another digitally oriented (de)composition full of rushing particle accelerator pulses and more of those spit the dummy lyrics Yorke is famous for. The haunting, moody “Pyramid Song”, remains one of the band’s greatest triumphs, a grandiose epic of depressing proportions. Jonny Greenwood’s string arrangements soar over the listener, in a way reminiscent of a score by Maurice Jarre. “Pulk Pull/Revolving Doors” might be well intended, but is little else than experimental nonsense, and a song which should have remained in the Radiohead laboratory labelled as ‘failed experiment’.
Fortunately the band hadn’t forgotten the concept of melody completely, and on “You And Whose Army” they reprise the sort of depressive navel gazing so prevalent on OK Computer. Hooray! (and about bloody time if you ask me.) “I Might Be Wrong” meanders its way around the listener’s mind though rather unsuccessfully I might add, even if there are moments here and there that lend themselves to closer observation. The gentle, pastoral Johnny Marr inspired strumming by Greenwood on “Knives Out” is contrasted by Yorke’s bitter invective aimed squarely at society’s obsession with consumerism (“Catch the mouse/Squash his head/Put him in the pot… Look into my eyes/I’m not coming back”).
The version of “Morning Bell” that appeared on Kid A had an engaging edginess to it, whereas here it just comes off as sulky and self-indulgent. “Dollars and Cents” is the sort of depressing de-motivational outing I’d like to see played more often at corporate functions. Because hey, one can’t be happy all the time, can they?
“Hunting Bears” is like a modern day “Horn” by Nick Drake, sparse and desolate in its delivery. Not so “Like Spinning Plates’, with its multitude of rotating loops and backward instrumentation (probably all run through a laptop). Whether it succeeds or not I guess depends on what head space the listener is in at the time.
The depression continues on album closer “Life In A Glasshouse”, like Theodore Roethke meets New Orleans, on which a cacophony of brass instruments meander their way in a disorderly funereal dirge through the back streets of your mind.
On Kid A, Radiohead managed to wipe the slate clean, and somehow rewrite the periodic table of their destiny in the process. That they irritated much of their audience didn’t seem to bother the band one iota. Miles Davis was pissing off his fans all the time, so why not these musical eggheads from Abingdon, Oxfordshire? Not everything on Amnesiac is a winner, truth be told, however what does work, works extremely well. Because at the end of the day, this is precisely the sort of art-meets-rock LP many critics either love or loathe.
Creativity isn’t always pleasing – it can be even challenging and unsettling. If you can’t live with that, then stick with your Steve Miller and Barry Manilow.