27
Jun 01

No Kidding: Radiohead – Amnesiac

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1. It’s June 8 2001 and I’ve a few hours to kill in London, so I walk. It’s a sunny day: most people look bored and in a hurry. Every now and then I stop and pick up one of the daily papers, which are all full of election talk. Arithmetically nothing’s happened – five seats lost here, six gained there, but the great blocs of party power are still intact. Look closer, though, and you can see eddies in the electoral current, small tics and tremors which suggest not just disillusionment but a twitchy volatility. A crushing majority for a single-issue independent. Turnout at its lowest since World War I. Twelve thousand fascist votes in Oldham. And all the record shops are playing Amnesiac, this strange little Number One album. “After years of waiting, nothing came / And you realise you’re looking, looking in the wrong place” sings Thom Yorke in a voice like hammered lead. “I’m a reasonable man, get off my case.”

How silly or skewed would it be to take Amnesiac as a political album? An album about the state of things, in a world where “things” have expanded to the very limits of what you thought was your privacy, and contracted to the point where you can’t even name who’s in charge? No sillier than taking it as an experimental record, or a rock record, or a record about a band’s last record, I think. After all, part of the conventional wisdom on Radiohead is that they are, as a band, about something. They’re Serious.

What exactly they’re about you might be forgiven for not grasping – capitalism, or fighting against capitalism, or the uselessness of that fight, or just how horrible it is to be Thom Yorke? This isn’t, quite, a criticism: horrorstruck or not, Yorke knows that in pop a well-placed phrase can set your head buzzing better than a finely-turned argument, and it’s a trick he’s getting steadily better at pulling. Lyrically, OK Computer was as disconnected and lateral as anything the band have done since, but the density of words made the album come off as a big (if vague) statement. Since then they’ve been paring the lyrics down and letting the moods and sounds – claustrophobic, messy, wrong – carry the content.

So Amnesiac is scattered with stabs of unsettled lyric, poking up through the mix, each making little connective sense: “You forget so easy”; “There’s someone listening in”; “Knives out, catch the mouse”; “There are secret doors”; “Crack your little souls”; “Think about the good times, never look back”. All these frightened epigrams build up into a familiar Radiohead picture: the individual powerless, stricken and paranoid in a hostile world. Amnesiac feels like a more explicitly political album because where songs do cohere they often address themes with some directness. “Dollars And Cents” covers global economics, “Life In A Glass House” talks about the media, and “You And Whose Army?” is ‘about’ Tony Blair.

Lyrically, though, “Dollars And Cents” and “You And Whose Army?” are the weakest songs on the record – their straightforward subject matter works against them. But they have to be there to anchor the other, more mosaic songs, to lend the album coherence. They’re the signposts to this interesting way of hearing Amnesiac, not just as a New Radiohead Album but as a record about living in Britain (and the world) right now. The personal and political being inescapably intertwined, Amnesiac takes place in inner space as much as public space – listening, I’m reminded of Byrne and Eno’s My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, and its balance between the cut-up chatter of talk show geopolitics and a haunted personal interior. The directly political songs aim at specific targets, and other songs conjure more general moods – doubt, frustration, anger, ruthlessness. Amnesiac is at is best when it turns entirely inwards, though: the “Pyramid Song” / “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” medley is extraordinary, taking visionary mysticism out of the hands of acceptable eccentrics and taking it somewhere grander and less comfortable – before dropping it in the Top Ten.

2.

Of course, you don’t have to listen to Amnesiac like this at all. But its curious coherence as a record, however you explain it, is one of the most surprising and pleasing things about it – there’s not a single track I like as well taken on its own as I do hearing it in the whole. Why surprising? Because Amnesiac is so beautifully eclectic – a hideously overused word which in this case fits. People who complain that Radiohead aren’t formally groundbreaking overlook the fact that the Aphex Twin or Mouse On Mars or Autechre or Beck or who-bloody-ever tend to release albums that sound like ten tracks of themselves. Whereas track-for-track Amnesiac sounds something like this:

1) Underworld jamming with Schneider TM
2) John Cale meets GYBE! with lyrics by David Tibet
3) Pole soundtracking Twin Peaks with bass by Luther Campbell
4) Underwater doo-wop and mutant MOR
5) Indie-Dance
6) Radiohead
7) Easy-listening primitivism
8) Orchestral jazz-rock

9) Loren MazzaCane Connors
10) Kid A played backwards
11) Thom Waits

On paper, then, this looks like one of the best albums of the year. And the really amazing thing is, in your ears it actually sounds like one of the best albums of the year: Radiohead have not just found the rock/electronica Third Way, they’ve hit on a creative method which seems elastic enough to allow any number of disparate elements room to manoeuvre and merge.

The proof of this, perhaps, lies in how pop an album Amnesiac sounds. After even one listen there were bits of almost every track lodged in my head, and after perhaps forty listens it still seems packed with unexpected hooks and wonderful sounds. The bass on “Pulk/Pull”; the bassline on “Dollars And Cents”; the strings on “Pyramid Song”; the gets-you-every-time way the band bisect their songs between foggy first half and full-on second; the vocal hook on “Packd Like Sardines”; the youthclub-disco beat on “I Might Be Wrong”; the chorus on “Knives Out”; the delectable, subtle cut-ups on “Hunting Bears” – these things make for fabulous pop. Even Thom Yorke – cranially perhaps their powerhouse, but vocally still their mumbly, mannered weakest link – matches performance to song in superlative style on “Life In A Glass House”.

Brainfood and earfood it may be, but Amnesiac isn’t perfect. Radiohead could certainly afford to be less grand, sometimes, and more joyful sometimes too. There also, you imagine, must be something in them which looks on the ham-fisted imitations of “Fake Plastic Trees” clogging the charts, and wants to show them not only how to do it well, but make it fresh too. Fresh like Amnesiac, because this is an excellent album, by some way Radiohead’s best. The idea of them turning back from this to make the kind of imposing but limiting big rock they made on OK Computer seems ludicrous: this is the sound of a band with more potential than ever.

Comments

  1. 1
    Robert Paulson on 27 Jan 2007 #

    Couldn’t have put it better myself.
    Amnesiac is mindblowing and does not get the recognition it deserves.
    I wouldn’t say that Thom is Radiohead’s weakest link though… without him they would be just another “Radiohead sounding” pop group. It’s very hard to imagine anyone else in his place.

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