Radiohead – Classic Music Review: Amnesiac

Last month I celebrated my thirty-sixth birthday by engaging in deep self-reflection about my life so far and how I want to live my life in the future. As a result, I decided the time was ripe to undergo a complete personality transformation, and I wanted to share the details of my metamorphosis with my readers as it will most certainly impact the content and style of my music reviews.

I have given up smoking, drinking and swearing. I have changed my diet and now follow a strict vegan regimen. I removed all the leather outfits, whips, crops and other sexual toys from my premises and gave them to my cousin. I also gave her all my make-up, lotions, potions and other beauty aids as I no longer have any need for them. I ended my sinful relationship with my partner and paid for her relocation back to Madrid. I have turned my life over to Jesus, having decided to practice celibacy until I meet a decent, God-fearing man who can keep me in my place and help me fulfill the true role of a woman by catering to his every need and supplying him with as many children as he desires.

If you believe any of that bullshit—if you really thought I was going to step into a phone booth and emerge as the alt-sacred-hymns-chick—you’re probably the kind of person who bought the spin generated by various members of Radiohead, who argued that Amnesiac was not an album of left-overs, Kid A outtakes and bonus tracks, but “another take on Kid A, a form of explanation” (Thom Yorke).

I have no idea what the fuck Thom Yorke meant by that statement and I don’t think he did either. The other boys in the band were even less convincing. Here’s a passage from a KCRW interview with Ed O’Brien and Colin Greenwood as they tried to hawk their latest wares to the listening public:

Chris: Now, you guys have been here at the Sundance Film Festival, debuting songs from the forthcoming album, Amnesiac. We heard, actually, four songs. The album is now due for a June release, and it’s the parallel album to Kid A – that’s what you guys have been calling it in the press – parallel because they came out of the same sessions, essentially?

Ed: Hmm hmm.

Colin: Yes, it’s really. . . it was over an eighteen month period of recording and we didn’t want to combine all the recordings, because it would be like some . . . you know, we don’t like double albums, and we didn’t want to tax the listener’s attention time-span . . . so, erm, we started off with one record, and the ones left over we sort of managed to put together. But we are happy with how they work together, both records, I think.

Chris: So, hearing it like that it sounds like they were almost outtakes that you . . .

Ed: No.

Chris: …or left-overs that…

Ed: No, no, it’s not. That is one of the main things that we’re really trying to get across, it’s not outtakes, it’s like…

Colin: We’d go in for like a week, like every day from 4 o’clock through to 11 or 12, working on the tracklistings for Kid A and with all the songs that we’d recorded, desperately trying to put in the songs that are on the next album, and we just couldn’t make an order fit. So there’s absolutely no sense of these other songs on Amnesiac being left-overs.

What, Colin? “So there’s absolutely no sense of these other songs on Amnesiac being left-overs.” Wait—about five minutes ago you said, “and the ones left over we sort of managed to put together.” Wanna try that again?

I think the simple fact they felt the need for a media blitz speaks volumes. It’s the rare artist that can be completely objective about the quality of his or her output, and it’s only natural that Radiohead didn’t want all those long hours in the studio to go down the drain. And there are some great songs on Amnesiac, certainly enough for a killer EP. Alternatively, they could have held those three or four songs in reserve for a later album, something Radiohead has done more than a few times over the years. If you take “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box,” “Pyramid Song” and “Knives Out” and replace the three turkeys on Hail to the Thief, you’d wind up with an absolute masterpiece.

Amnesiac has its share of reject pile nominees, but it’s not a complete waste of time. And though I hate comparing one album to another, Radiohead opened the door to that criticism with Thom Yorke’s “another take” comment, so here goes: Amnesiac doesn’t come close to Kid A in terms of quality, passion, artistic courage or originality.  Amnesiac is a combination of a few great songs that wouldn’t have fit with the textures and themes of Kid A, one or two mildly interesting pieces weakened by inappropriate embellishments, a couple of  less-than-successful electronic experiments, one completely unnecessary do-over and another nominee for the worst thing Radiohead ever did.

“Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box” kicks things off, a title that reflects the song’s sonic environment: claustrophobic, with rising pressures building around you as the song progresses. The scanty lyrics are the lead character’s response to those growing pressures, the feeling of being crowded out by society and the little it has to offer:

After years of waiting
Nothing came
And you realize you’re looking
Looking in the wrong place
I’m a reasonable man
Get off my case, get off my case, get off my case

The title is said to refer to the Paris taxicabs of the era, so the logical assumption is that the character is a taxi driver, having to scrounge and scrape for a living because his life plans fell through. The song begins with Phil Selway playing a syncopated riff on kitchen pots that feels like a man nervously tapping his fingers on a metallic surface, waiting for a call from dispatch. The addition of bass and synthesizer that forms the dominant theme seems to shrink the space, making Thom Yorke’s first few lines sound like internal dialogue. At the point where he sings the phrase, “you realize,” additional sounds enter from all sides, as if the driver has received his orders and has moved into the traffic queue. Phil Selway’s kitchen pots make occasional reappearances, like the sound of a clock moving in and out of the perceptual field, adding both unity and tension. Around the two-and-a-half minute mark, the piece breaks pattern and becomes an eerie soundscape of electronic rhythms and moaning sounds, creating a feeling of anxiety in the listener that is not at all relieved by the reappearance of the kitchen pot pattern, now colored by the eeriness. At this point, the dominant theme returns and the claustrophobic feeling is intensified by the emergence of a smattering of human voices—perhaps people jamming themselves into his cab, perhaps the bullshitting that goes on between drivers at the taxi stand. The tension is so great now that when our taxi driver returns, the repetition of “I’m a reasonable man/get off my case/get off my case” sounds like a man ready to go Travis Bickle on us. Although Amnesiac has its deficiencies, you certainly won’t find them in the opening track—a dark, defiant and well-thought-out piece that is undeniably captivating.

Nor will you find any flaws in “Pyramid Song,” a grand dirge featuring an outstanding string arrangement courtesy of Jonny Greenwood and the acoustics of Dorchester Abbey. The inspiration for the song seems to have come from multiple sources: the music from Charles Mingus’ “Freedom” (more in the feel than in the specific arrangement); the lyrics from an art exhibit of Egyptian underworld art; and The Divine Comedy. From those diverse sources, Thom Yorke formed a set of lyrics that melds the mythical journey to Styx with notions of cyclical time:

I jumped in the river, what did I see?
Black-eyed angels swam with me
A moon full of stars and astral cars
And all the figures I used to see
All my lovers were there with me
All my past and futures
And we all went to heaven in a little row-boat
There was nothing to fear and nothing to doubt

The first rendition of the verse features Thom Yorke playing simple piano chords, occasionally slowing the rhythm by delaying the expected beat, reflecting both the wonder and uncertainty of the journey into the afterlife. In deep background we hear hints of strings and faint voices, but the overall impression is one of deep stillness. The ondes Martenot then appears with its rising swells reminiscent of sirens while Phil Selway enters to cement the rhythm in the unusual time signature of 9/8. The song glides forward majestically as we close our eyes to take in the sheer beauty of the arrangement until the tempo slows to support the repetition of the line, “There was nothing to fear and nothing to doubt,” a comforting thought for listeners conditioned to fear death. The final, brief passage features the beauty of the string arrangement with ondes and Phil Selway in strong supporting roles.

It would have been NICE to give the listener a few moments to let “Pyramid Song” sink in, but the lovely mood is cruelly interrupted by the immediate and contextually annoying sound of electronic beats. This bit of track order rudeness does not dispose one to consider “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” in a favorable light, but even after listening to it in relative isolation I find the track cold and uninviting. The lyrics, spoken through a processed voice reciting the qualities of the infinite variety of doors, seem like the philosophical meanderings common to the hippie movement—“Doors, man. Think about it. Doors. I mean, doors are like so far out—or in. Wow.” Definitely bonus track material for Radiohead fanatics.

The mood doesn’t pick up much with “You and Whose Army,” allegedly a sort of protest against the betrayal of socialist principles by the business-friendly regime of the now-discredited Tony Blair, though you can hardly discern that from the lyrics, where ghost horses are on the march. The most interesting aspect of the performance is Thom Yorke’s choice of tone—a lazy, slurred performance that contradicts the machismo implied by the title and forms a pointed commentary on the lack of resolve on the part of the electorate to get their fat asses out of their comfy chairs and take action. Even with that inspired choice of performance style, “You and Whose Army” isn’t a particular favorite of mine: the opening passage is as slow as molasses and the mid-song change using the now tiresome pattern of soft-LOUD fails to generate much excitement.

I read that Mojo described the guitar riff that dominates “I Might Be Wrong” as “venomous.” No, it’s not. The guitar riff on “Electioneering” is venomous; this one’s just “okay.” “I Might Be Wrong” was one of the singles from the album, a choice I find baffling as the beat is painfully repetitive and Thom Yorke comes down solidly on the anti-enunciation side of vocal phrasing techniques. The break in the action—a shift to relative quiet without that incredibly annoying beat—comes too late to make the save and really doesn’t add all that much. The lyrics are supposed to be about a time of personal crisis in Thom Yorke’s life, but if that’s the case, one can only conclude he wanted to keep the details a secret.

Then, out of the fucking blue, we get “Knives Out.” This amazing piece of work almost didn’t make the cut, as Radiohead spent 373 days recording it before realizing that it really didn’t need all the embellishment they were trying to force onto its structure. I don’t have access to their Myers-Briggs profiles, but it’s safe to assume that Radiohead is an introvert-dominated outfit. Introverts are often great musicians and composers because their natural preoccupation with depth can lead to rich improvisations and compositions. On the other hand, introverts can often get lost in the maze-like passages in their brains and make the simple much more difficult than it needs to be. The overworking of “Knives Out” was probably one of those maze experiences where the group was in total denial about the value of simple-and-straightforward.

The cannibalistic lyrics are deliberately designed to express strong emotions concerning the too-human tendency to screw people over and vilify those who have left our lives for other experiences. Some of the lines are delivered with classically British black humor (“His blood is frozen/Still there is no point in letting it go to waste”), but Thom Yorke’s dominant tone is one of mournful regret for those who just can’t let go of their anger or jealousy at the departed husband, friend, lover, employee.

Tell you what—listen to “Knives Out” while reading stories of how Trump is doing is damnedest to erase Obama’s legacy and you’ll begin to appreciate how pointless competition can become a sick obsession.

The music to “Knives Out” is quite warm in contrast to the coldness of the lyrics. Here the guitars dominate with lovely arpeggios stretching the length of the fretboard, while the beat is closer to Brazilian-flavored jazz. I love the duet in the break, especially the finish when the two guitars lock into the Em6/Em7 pattern and play an extended riff on the bottom strings. The chords to “Knives Out” are actually quite clever, and Radiohead makes excellent use of the minor-to-major seventh combination to raise the tension. Easily Thom Yorke’s strongest vocal on Amnesiac, “Knives Out” is a sterling example of a song that flows as naturally as  a stream while allowing for sufficient musical variation.

Now we confront Exhibit A for the argument that Amnesiac is the poor sister to Kid A: the reprise of “Morning Bell,” retitled “Morning Bell/Amnesiac” so we can tell the difference without looking at the album covers. This version isn’t half as interesting as the far more rhythmic version on Kid A, and its appearance in the middle of the album implies something “new and different.” That is consumer fraud! There oughta be a law! “It is illegal to attempt to foist onto the consumer a different version of the original song without labeling it a bonus track.”

Harrumph!

We go back to truly original material with “Dollars and Cents,” a song that falls into the mixed-feeling category. I love the work of the rhythm section and the late night jazz club feel they produce, but the embellishments on this song seem unusually undisciplined, and Thom Yorke delivers a less-than-satisfying vocal. The lyrics are an unbridled attack on the system of societal control that brings us war and encourages greed while steadily destroying the environment. I have no problem with the lyrics, but they needed more aggressive musical support than they get here. It’s followed by “Hunting Bears,” a brief instrumental featuring lots of guitar squeak and synthesized sound, which in turn is followed by “Like Spinning Plates,” a piece that serves to demonstrate that Radiohead had spent way too much time playing with their electronic toys.

Amnesiac ends with a thud with the truly awful “Life in a Glasshouse,” a song about the tiresome aspects of fame, particularly the lack of privacy that goes hand-in-hand with success. I totally agree with the sentiments expressed in the song, as I think our elevation of artists to superhuman status is absolutely appalling, and the impact on the artist—particularly an introverted artist—is both emotionally devastating and paranoia-inducing:

Well of course I’d like to sit around and chat
Well of course I’d like to stay and chew the fat
Well of course I’d like to sit around and chat
Only only only only only only only only only only
There’s someone listening in

Once again, the problem lies in the embellishments, in this case provided by the Humphrey Lyttleton Band, who were enlisted to add a New Orleans jazz funeral touch to the piece. The counterpoint phrases HLB provides through the first part of the song aren’t bad (the clarinetist is really quite good), but when they ramp up to full volume to play a New Orleans funeral march over the final repetition of closing verse, they bury Thom Yorke’s vocal in cacophonous thunder. The result is a confusing mess of contradictory intentions and style, as if you walked into a house with three radios playing music from different stations at maximum volume. Radiohead and New Orleans jazz is a combination that works as well as peanut butter and tuna, and I’m absolutely befuddled that they didn’t enlist jazz musicians with a more modern bent whose styles would have been more in sync with their experimental leanings. The choice is even more curious when you consider that one of the greatest funereal jazz pieces of all time is “Goodbye, Pork Pie Hat” by none other than Charles Mingus, perhaps the greatest modern jazz composer of them all, and the alleged influence for “Pyramid Song.”

Kid A and Amnesiac will forever be paired due to the simultaneous recording of the tracks, and I find it very interesting that many Radiohead fans and critics have chosen sides as to which album is superior. I have no doubt in my mind that Kid A wins that battle, but I also know that many people were put off by what they perceived to be its abstract lyrics, grating sounds and fluid structures. Amnesiac certainly contains its share of “experimental music,” but also features songs with more familiar structures and straightforward arrangements. Those who reacted violently to the shock of Kid A found Amnesiac more comforting and coherent, an entirely understandable response. I find Amnesiac wanting; others have the right to differently.

But let’s put things in perspective. Even though Amnesiac is not my favorite Radiohead album, it’s still Radiohead, and I’d rather listen to a less-than-perfect Radiohead effort than 99% of the music produced in the 21st Century.

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Altrockchick

Independent music reviewer appearing on altrockchick.com and 50thirdand3rd.com. Originally from San Francisco, I am now a French/EU citizen living in Nice. And I look great in leather.

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