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