Radiohead // Amnesiac (2001)

If you treat Radiohead’s discography like a family tree, Amnesiac is the direct descendant of Kid A. Some might consider it the bastard child. Comprised of songs recorded during the same studio sessions, Kid A and Amnesiac will forever be bound together. And unfortunately, Amnesiac is often unfairly compared to its predecessor. There’s no denying that Kid A is a revolutionary album, for more reasons than one. But where that album contracts and repels at every turn, the individual songs that inhabit Amnesiac are much more inviting, free to stand out in a crowd. And they are by no means kitchen scraps. In fact, the plan all along was to split the twenty-some tracks into two separate albums: no EPs, no b-sides, but two cohesive works. Amnesiac stands on its own, an intriguing and experimental album from the most innovative band in popular music.

Amnesiac notably differs from previous Radiohead albums in that the songs don’t flow perfectly, or even nicely for that matter. There’s little to no through line. In places the record seems unsettled and fussy; in others, downright messy. More importantly, it is undeniably engaging. There is tension in this music. The anthemic Radiohead of old now bashed heads with a new sound populated by synthesizers, drum machines, and increasingly complex string arrangements. “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box” is all clang and bang and synth, whizzing keyboards and wild percussion, Thom Yorke singing “Get off my case” with the careless conviction of a bored teenager. This is immediately followed by “Pyramid Song,” which feigns simplicity with simple elements (piano, Jonny Greenwood’s strings, Yorke’s high hums) that lumber along in an odd, slipshod timing. Two minutes in, Phil Selway’s drums punctuate the ballad, blending beautifully with Greenwood’s arching strings. These are the first two tracks on Amnesiac, and they couldn’t be more different.

The record is full of these moments, where convention strangely segues into experimentation and visa versa. “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” sounds like someone making nonsense music with a synthesizer. The fuzzy burst of beat is occasionally broken up by new elements, but no thing agrees with any other thing. It almost seems necessary, Radiohead exercising their ears, picking apart sounds and piecing them together in the slightest of ways. “You And Whose Army?” follows and immediately reminds of Radiohead’s ever-present influence in indie music: the muffled guitar strum and Thom Yorke’s soft vocalizations sound eerily similar to Deerhunter’s “Sailing,” to the point Yorke and Bradford Cox’s voices are nearly interchangeable. The song has a bit of a political bend to it, as do some of the other tracks on Amnesiac, adding layers and layers to an album almost overstuffed with sound and circumstance.

A clear standout, “I Might Be Wrong” makes ample use of more familiar instruments. The song is dominated by drum and guitar, unafraid to be itself in this collection of singular misfits. Yorke sounds annoyed, even angry as he sings “I used to think / There is no future left at all.”  There are certain moments where Amnesiac‘s ties to Kid A are unassailable. These tracks were born of the same process, a desire to strip away the old varnish staining Radiohead’s conscience.  Regardless, “I Might Be Wrong” is an individual, as is the next track, the decidedly less doleful “Knives Out.” Well, less doleful musically: the lyrics are a different story altogether. “If you’d been a dog / They would’ve drowned you at birth” Yorke sings, forceful and emotive. A lot can be extracted from those lyrics. Viewing it through a political lense, Yorke seems to be referencing a sort of social Darwinism, where the strong survive and the weak peter out. If you’d been a dog, you’d have been the runt of the litter. The fortunate prey on the less fortunate, “So knives out.”

“Morning Bell/Amnesiac,” which gets my vote for the strangest track on Amnesiac, alternates between harmonious chimes and haunting synth tones. It’s the original version of Kid A‘s “Morning Bell,” but where that song’s tempo was noticeably more metered and deliberate, “Morning Bell/Amnesiac” opts for a slower, lumbering tempo, and never really breaks from that formula. The most damning lyrics remain (“Cut the kids in half”), as does the ambiguity. Maybe it’s about divorce, maybe it’s a family tiff. With Thom Yorke, it’s often hard to tell.  “You can keep the furniture” he says, followed by “Release me,” a tired plea. “Dollars & Cents” reaffirms Radiohead’s fascination with live jazz music, specifically the works of genre legend Charles Mingus. More so than any song on the album, this is Radiohead working perfectly in tandem. Jonny’s distant strings and guitar play well with Colin’s slappy, menacing bassline and Selway’s delicate cymbal taps. Yorke’s lyrics (“There are weapons we can use / Be constructive with your blues”) ether earnestly speak to passive protest or mock your standard government response, a kind but stern suggestion to the people: quit fussing.

“Like Spinning Plates,” Amnesiac‘s penultimate song, is a moody and confusing exercise. Yorke’s lyrics are played in reverse, though they sound like actual words due to the fact that he sang them backwards. The crowning example of Amnesiac‘s dedication to experimentation over entertainment, “Like Spinning Plates” buries itself in synth, content to spend its short life lost at sea. Album closer “Life in a Glasshouse” is a sweet ode to jazz in all forms, at once lively and glum. It’s also a bit paranoid: “Well of course I’d like to sit around and chat / But someone’s listening in” the chorus rings, lead trumpets sounding off, one after the other. If there’s a single meaning to grab from these lyrics, it’s that the turn of the century really did a number on Thom Yorke’s psyche. This is not protest music, it’s music of derailed reality, a muddled dystopia where everyone is aware of what everyone else is doing at all times. The advent of the internet changed music forever. Amnesia set in, people jumping from band to band to album to song with little thought. People forgot where music had been, and had little mind to think where it might go in the future.

Amnesiac is a Radiohead classic, and rightfully so. It was the turning point for a band whose previous two albums transcended the genre trappings of rock or alternative. This new dedication to experimentation—to breaking down a song to its core elements and rearranging them in a particular and peculiar way—remains with Radiohead to this day. Without Amnesiac, would Radiohead have had the gall to record something like In Rainbows? I’d like to think not. It’s a record of twists and turns, starts and stops, the most popular band in the world playing not for fans or critics or album sales, but for the simple act of playing. Old met new, and Radiohead found it’s sound, an ever-warping piggy bank of instruments. Sometimes, we must forget where we’ve come from to get a clearer picture of where we might be going. Sometimes, it’s necessary to forget.

 

Chris

Favorite Tracks: “Packd Like Sardines in a Crsuhd Tin Box,” “Pyramid Song,” “I Might Be Wrong,” “Knives Out”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Radiohead // Kid A (2000)

Kid A is numb. It is an immensely paranoid record, the fractured ramblings of newly-crowned auteurs lost in a hellscape. It is scared. It is scary. It has no desire to crawl out of it’s own skin. It was a premonition: Kid A essentially predicted our future. It is one of, if not the, first album to be experienced primarily on the internet; its relentless weirdness and complicated circumstances accurately reflect the disconnect of modern life. The entire world is now at arm’s reach, and yet somehow we have never felt more alone.

Kid A is also a child of strain. On the heels of what critics were already calling the saving grace of alternative rock music, OK Computer, Radiohead was now one of the most famous rock bands in the world. The band suffered a crash and burn, unsure of what to do next, where to go and how to get there. Thom Yorke experienced a mental breakdown, plagued with intense writer’s block. He had no desire to be a famous musician. For him, music was an escape, a “way of moving on and dealing with things.” The critical and commercial success of OK Computer ripped away his anonymity. He became closed, isolated, the allure of rock music evaporating all around him. He was hostile and divisive, hellbent on changing. Stripping preconceived notions of what a “Radiohead album” should sound like, Yorke and fellow band mates Ed O’Brien, Philip Selway, and Jonny and Colin Greenwood confronted very high expectations. They then kindly told those expectations to fuck off.

The first twenty seconds of Kid A are an ominous prelude. The warped vocal effects and dissonant harmony (a combination of synthesizer and drum machine) combine sparsely, and the song rarely settles on one chord. “Everything In It’s Right Place,” in addition to being the first track on Kid A, was also the first song Thom Yorke wrote for the album. Written using only a piano, Yorke’s lyrics are few and far between, and largely unilluminating. Kid A is not a revealing album. Yorke sings “Everything, everything, everything / In its right place,” as though he’s not really interested in singing at all. Thus begins the album’s numbing effect, the aggressive disconnect amidst a clamor of unnatural sound. “Everything In It’s Right Place” segues into the title track. The intro (a clash of light piano and warped, almost alien sounds) is a bait-and-switch of high measure. This is the title track of a Radiohead album, but not once is Yorke’s voice unmanipulated: in fact, the lyrics are often unintelligible. Yorke spends the song wrapped in sound, lazily humming lyrics I imagine he scribbled on eight or nine lines of notebook paper. Perhaps the most revealing aspect of “Kid A” is Yorke not wanting his voice or lyrics to rise above the noise. He seems resigned, content even, to lie back and let the synthesizer make all the moves for him. The track doesn’t necessarily stand out. It is not flashy or gutsy. It’s just there, present, existing. And that makes it essential.

To that point, like very few albums before or after, every single tick of Kid A‘s forty-nine minutes and fifty-seven seconds is essential. It is the definition of album. You cannot choose a single song that rises above its whole; there is no “Karma Police” or “Paranoid Android” to isolate and play on repeat. “The National Anthem” turns the traditional Radiohead partners of guitar and drum into drone. Phantom sounds occasionally break through, foreign and unhinged. Yorke poses the question “What’s going on?” with frightening deliberateness. It is an angry song, disaffected and disjointed, eventually devolving into a downright scary mess of broken jazz. “The National Anthem” is anxiety and paranoia becoming tangible. Nothing gets along. Nothing blends together. Each element is alone, distinct—a heavily crowded room full of introverts, the music reflective of their rapid, darting thoughts.

Kid A continually and obsessively buries itself within itself. The instrumental “Treefingers” doesn’t amount to much more than cautious harmonies, closed off and quiet. High pings resembling the song of windchimes lift it from its brooding sadness. There’s a feeling “Treefingers” captures that we’ve all felt. It’s not historical or contemplative, nor is it particularly nuanced or sophisticated. It is a song of utility: what it does is isolate. It makes you feel alone, and not even alone with your thoughts—aloneness, in the purest, truest sense. In life, there are moments of lightness and humor and joy. But in the interim, the long inhale between brief exhales of lightness or humor or joy, that is where most of life is lived.

“Idioteque” is the centerpiece of Kid A. Jonny Greenwood’s pointed electronic score is dominated by bassline and creaky, insect-like treble. The song is schizophrenic, a rambling prophecy of some impending apocalypse. The lyrics are a gut-punch, the closest Kid A comes to hitting home. “Who’s in bunker, who’s in bunker? / Women and children first.” “Ice age coming, ice age coming.” “We’re not scaremongering / This is really happening, happening.” “I’ll laugh until my head comes off.” True to the album’s bleakness, Yorke sounds more narrator than whistleblower. The song at turns propels and halts, Yorke singing with purpose, a singularity in this soundscape.

As is usually the case with albums I love, one lyric or musical element stands above the rest. I have a tendency to boil an album down to one point, one meaning, something solid I can pin down and decompound. For me, this point appears early in Kid A, on “How To Disappear Completely,” the album’s fourth track. Strings stir to life. In comes the soft strum of guitar as ambient noise breathes in the background. Thom Yorke gently sings: “That there, that’s not me.” No moment captures the emotional disconnect of Kid A quite like that sentence. There’s no air of pretension, no lofty metaphor to dissect and critically evaluate. It’s the idea that the you sitting behind the glow of your phone or computer or some other worldly distraction is not you. That is not the real you, the essence of you. You’re merely pretending that’s you. It’s easier that way, there’s less work to be done. You can plug in, shut off, and forget. We have been warned. In that way lies madness.

To be frank, most of what I’ve said may sound like total bullshit. And I get that, I really do. I may be running in circles, talking for sake of talking, finding meaning where it doesn’t necessarily belong. But Kid A is truly an album capable of leaving a lasting mark, and it’s surprising how rare that is today. Were the album released this year, I can guess many people would listen to it, cram “Idioteque” into a playlist and leave the rest as scraps. What’s so amazing is Kid A does not, and cannot, function without all of its parts working in tandem. Without “Treefingers,” “Optimistic” just wouldn’t make sense. It would ring hollow. That completeness makes Kid A special. This is an album capable of translating fear, paranoia, and impermanence into music. It predicted the future, one of ever-better technology and connectivity. It cautions that the steady incline of society, in its rapidity and repetition, can numb the senses. It fears the future, yes, but refuses to turn its back to the noise. Kid A is never, and will never be, more pertinent than in the very moment you’re listening.

 

Chris

Favorite tracks: The album in its entirety, front to back. Close your eyes, tune out the world, and listen to it in one sitting: I promise, it’s worth your time.