Radiohead - Amnesiac
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
I dig alienation as much as the next guy, and dig weepy music; but when I’m feeling alienated I want the music to, you know, comfort. Radiohead’s Amnesiac does no such thing, and I guess it’s cool that that’s the way the band intended it. Ever since 2000’s Kid A, when the OK computers definitively took over the studio, Thom Yorke and his merry men have assembled albums with neurotic precision, on which discrete vocals and effects bleep and blurp and hum like kitchen appliances. When their shit is hot you forget the overwrought confessionals on 1995’s The Bends and savor the results: what Robert Christgau called “dinner music,” suitable with claret.
The hermetically sealed Amnesiac, songs packed like sardines in a crushed tin box (how ‘bout that for a song title! Scary!), represents a band that has finally become, in the words of Yorke in an interview promoting Kid A, “revolted by the sound of a melody.” An interesting ambition, no doubt—give the boy a gold star for ambition. Fans may revere Radiohead for fighting corporate hegemony, but listen: this band knows how to market its reputation for being “groundbreaking” as shrewdly as its boy-band contemporaries sold their choreography, earrings, and pecs, but, oh, without the humor. They definitely forgot about the humor.
But this is precisely why Amnesiac did so well in 2001. Famously lacking in humor, most teenagers thought Radiohead’s hostile austerity signified greatness; they were unable to notice that the grating amateurism of the programmed beats in “Like Spinning Plates” matched the predictable chord progressions of—to pick a random hit by a multi-platinum band big that summer—Lifehouse’s “Hanging By A Moment” in its eagerness to please its target audience. In the months before 9-11 gave George W. Bush a patina of authority his ignominious eight-month honeymoon lacked, fans read their own alienation from the larger world in the anomic likes of “You And Whose Army”. They didn’t seem to mind that these tracks offered no succor, in fact didn’t blink behind their steely imperviousness. Liking Amnesiac is akin to having a crush on that boy who won’t respond to your moves: your frustration confers a doomed romanticism to the silly affair.
One-sided relationships do get boring after a while, and it’s to Radiohead’s credit that its aural fuck-you sent fans scurrying to record stores for old Can and Kraftwerk vinyl, as well as bestowing temporary respectability to grim electronic outfits like Autechre, a band so revolted by smuttier pleasures that they made Radiohead seem like No Doubt in comparison. I directly credit Amnesiac for turning me on to Timbaland and Missy Elliott, both of whom were about to kick off their two-year stranglehold on the charts with “Get Ur Freak On”, a track more eloquent about what to do when you feel like a creep than anything in Radiohead’s output.
But let’s get one thing straight: only Radiohead could have released such a misfire. While nothing on Amnesiac replicates the steely dementia of Kid A’s standout track (and Radiohead’s finest moment) “Idioteque”, moments of beauty glint like sunlight off a skyscraper. “I Might Be Wrong”, which can actually said to groove somewhat, combines a this-is-no-joke guitar hook with Yorke’s in-the-clouds imperiousness to create a dance track for broken-legged people. But, oh, the boy is irrepressible! When he sings, “Look in my eyes / I might not come back” on “Knives Out”, you know he’s voicing Radiohead’s contempt—for its audience, for its art, for themselves.
Last year’s Hail To The Thief was a partial return to form, but what form? Artistes as ruthlessly purist as Radiohead abscond “form” anyway—that is, until their expensive toys start to bore them, at which point they’ll record a “song” album like fellow arena loudmouths U2. Our heroes are human after all! If nothing else, Amnesiac marked the point where I tipped my hat not to Thom Yorke the tormented genius, but to Thom Yorke, the closet huckster. Keep it up, Thom: you’ll be selling ice to the Eskimos. How’s that for a song title? It’s about, see, how Bush really invaded Iraq to put a pipeline from Afghanistan to…