This came out in 2001 – or at least that’s when I got it. Here’s what I said about it back then (with some minor editing):
“If you look at the artwork for Kid A, well, that’s like looking at the fire from afar,” says Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. “Amnesiac is the sound of what it feels like to be standing in the fire.”
Oh, sure. That explains everything. Not. Then again, I’m not surprised — I gave up trying to decipher Yorke’s gobbledygook long ago. What I presume the always nebulous singer means, though, is that Radiohead’s fifth album Amnesiac isn’t as coldly detached as his band’s previous disc. That it’s less experimental and more immediate. That it’s made up of songs rather than sonic sculptures. In other words, that it’s a little more OK Computer and a little less Kid B.
Which is true — sorta. The 43-minute Amnesiac was recorded during the same sessions that produced last year’s high-concept sci-fi masterpiece Kid A. And even after just a handful of listenings, it’s easy to see why these songs didn’t make the cut. It’s not that they’re second-rate or half-baked; these 11 cuts are as fully realized as anything the band has recorded. But they don’t seem quite as determinedly avant-garde. With Kid A, you got the impression Yorke and co. were deliberately making it hard on themselves, eschewing anything that smacked of traditional songcraft and arrangement to break new ground; here, they seem a little more relaxed, willing to just kick back and play around. So the beats are a little more uptempo. The lyrics are slightly more decipherable. The guitars are a little more prominent. Coming from the guys who birthed the difficult Kid A, this one seems like an easier delivery.
Of course, it’s still a long way from O-Town. “After years of waiting, nothing came / As your life flashed before your eyes, you realized … you’re looking in the wrong place,” are the jolly lyrics to opener Packt Like Sardines in A Crushd Box. Set to a Kraftwerk-style beatbox, the ringing tones of an old synth and a squealing guitar, it succinctly addresses the ironic disparity between our cramped lives and our empty souls. But is Yorke’s refrain — “I’m a reasonable man / Get off my case / Get off my case” — a plea or a warning?
As usual, those sorts of dark, cryptic musings and mutterings are par for the course. “I jumped in the river, what did I see / Black-eyed angels swam with me / A moon full of stars and astral cars … all my lovers were there with me,” croons Yorke on Pyramid Song. “Well of course I’d like to sit and chew the fat / Well of course I’d like to sit around and chat,” he explains on the paranoid Life in a Glasshouse, “but someone’s listening in.” And then there’s the distinctly creepy Knives Out: “He’s bloated and frozen / Still there’s no point in letting him go to waste / So knives out / Catch da mouse / Don’t look down / Shove it in yer mouth.” He could be talking about the consumptive nature of fame. He could be talking about our cannibalistic, cutthroat society. Or he could just be rewriting Three Blind Mice.
Yorke may be impossible as ever to pin down, but much of Amnesiac’s music is a stroll down memory lane. And sometimes down Bourbon Street. More than a couple of these cuts find Radiohead toying with the style and sounds of American jazz and blues. Pyramid Song wobbles along to a narcoleptic swing beat and syncopated piano chords. I Might Be Wrong jives to a droning, floppy-boot-stomp guitar and burbling bass straight from Beefheart. Life In A Glasshouse is a sombre slice of downbeat Dixieland — think a New Orleans funeral march played by alien zombies — with the band accompanied by a brass section, clarinet and double-bass. Naturally, there’s plenty of the post-rock and intelligent techno you’d expect on the android chillout ditty Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors, the backwards tape loops and synthesized vocals of Like Spinning Plates and the crystalline soundscape of Morning Bell (a reworking of a cut from Kid A). But in the main, this sounds like an actual band and not a computer program. That alone is enough to make it a standout in Radiohead’s recent catalog.
So no, Amnesiac is no Kid A. Hell, what could be? But it is a fascinating and compelling work — make that ANOTHER fascinating etc. — from one of the few bands worth paying attention to these days. Even if you can’t figure out what the hell Thom Yorke is on about.