Radiohead – Amnesiac

Radiohead - Amnesiac

In jest or otherwise, Amnesiac is often labeled a collection of b-sides that didn’t make the cut of Kid A. There’s no shortage of reasons: Amnesiac was released not even a year after the latter (and after Radiohead themselves said that the next album would be a return to rock form), its tracks are all culled from the Kid A sessions that didn’t make the cut – hell, there’s even a re-recording of “Morning Bell” thrown in the mix. Its conspicuous release and topically similar thematic qualities shadow the music, which is plaintive yet grand – pragmatic, yet phantasmagorical.

For one, Amnesiac is warmer than Kid A. There’s a sharper focus on organic instruments with direct lyrical matters rather than the electronic Dadaist nightmare that is the latter work. That’s not to disparage Kid A, it’s just different. There’s nothing quite like the subtle piano lead of “Pyramid Song” in all of its Divine Comedy subtext. Radiohead claimed that the Kid A sessions were heavily influenced by the political and social quagmire of the end of the twentieth century prior to the September 11th attacks, but it’s on Amnesiac‘s “You and Whose Army?” that such disgust is brought forth.

And yet this warmth is not born out of hygge, but out of grief. If Kid A painted the slow shock of trauma, then Amnesiac is picking up the pieces as those numbed emotions being to affect. Amnesiac vacillates from detached to harrowing – often between songs. Take “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” as an example, with its uncanny valley robotic vocals; or “Knives Out,” with its cheerful little guitar lead and lyrics about cannibalism. Then there’s the aforementioned “Pyramid Song,” whereby Yorke utilizes his existential crises to elicit what would not be ill-mistaken for comfort and reassurance in the face of oblivion.

The jazz influence on Amnesiac is much stronger than that on Kid A, and those who found the electronic and screwed rock textures to be oppressive on the latter album will find the former to be a much more welcoming – even musical – listen. One of the most famous tracks from Kid A is the chaotic freeform jazz of “The National Anthem,” but that was the only extant demonstration of Radiohead’s experiments in the teachings of Mingus and Davis. Perhaps owing to its less subdued nature, Amnesiac features far more of such experiments, and for the most part they pay off quite well. Of course, there’s the drunken waltz of “Pyramid Song” and the brass band climax on “Life in a Glass House;” but there’s also the modal bass line of “Dollars and Cents,” the Brubeck-esque piano in the second half of “You and Whose Army?,” and the groove of “I Might Be Wrong.” Amnesiac stands on its own, and is by far the jazziest of any Radiohead release.

Amnesiac also has its fair share of auditory exercises, ones that are unique in how obviously speculative – even unrefined – that they are, which forces the listener to think and to be a part of the creative process. “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” revels in the uncanny valley with its computerized monotone vocals. “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box” was produced almost entirely via pitch-bending Yorke’s voice to create a nasal, inflected, and slightly unsettling delivery. “Hunting Bears” is a volatile instrumental that is entirely performed on electric guitar and synthesizer, yet its unorthodox tone connotates a sinister augury. “Like Spinning Plates” was created via reversed components of “I Will” – a songs that would be featured in a very different form on follow-up release Hail to the Thief – but less blatant is how Yorke’s lyrics are him attempting to make coherent words out of what he heard himself singing upon listening to a backmasked version of the original song, which emphasizes its kaleidoscopic milieu. Amnesiac challenges the listener to become an active participant in the deconstruction of the songwriting process.

And yet, even this review is guilty of discussing Amnesiac mostly within context of its older brother, which is not fair to this incredible work of art in all of its structured capricity. If “Dollars and Cents” and “You Might Be Wrong” are any case, then it’s even got moments of being pretty damn cool. Amnesiac is far more than Kid A outtakes, and it deserves to be discussed on its own merits rather than as an extension of the experimental clusterfuck that produced Radiohead’s millennial masterpiece. I’m just not the writer to do so.

1. Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box – (4:00) – ★★★★★
2. Pyramid Song – (4:48) – ★★★★★
3. Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors – (4:07) – ★★★★☆
4. You and Whose Army? – (3:10) – ★★★★★
5. I Might Be Wrong1 – (4:53) – ★★★★☆
6. Knives Out – (4:14) – ★★★★★
7. Morning Bell/Amnesiac – (3:14) – ★★★☆☆
8. Dollars and Cents – (4:51) – ★★★★☆
9. Hunting Bears – (2:01) – ★★★★★
10. Like Spinning Plates – (3:57) – ★★★★★
11. Life in a Glass House – (4:34) – ★★★★☆

Overall: ★★★★½

1The first dance piece that I ever choreographed was performed to this song.

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