Radiohead: You and Whose Army?
tylus Magazine’s Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro;a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you've never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.
Amnesiac makes the dystopia of its forebear look Wellsian. Midnight oil versus the afternoon variety, I know. But if Kid A was post-millenial malaise awakening to the pallor of tomorrow, Amnesiac was the realization that maybe, just maybe, we’d underestimated the complexities of the wiring. That the blinking neon was going to keep pulsing throughout the night; that it never went out, never went off, and never went white. Written off by some as a haphazard collection of leftovers, Amnesiac seems now every bit as urgent and pensive as its companion; it’s just a bit more mischievous with its hope, and Rolling Stone had already left the building.
For me, it all comes to a flex early on. “You and Whose Army?” is the distillation of the album’s pale chagrin into one song. I mean, it starts with a brief clip of what sounds like a man trying to swallow everything that follows whole. Before he begins and lets all this ash out of his lungs, he wants to forget what he’s about to say. Choral moaning overtracks deep-blue guitar strums, and Yorke’s vocals are strung deep in the mire, forlorn, almost humming from atop a TV antenna needled over a voided city’s skyscape. He sounds uncertain, like he’s not sure what he’s about to challenge, what he wants to question. But he’s fucking worn out, the threads are bare again, and in that decayed fatigue, he’s about to mount a challenge.
Now that dispute, that moment of decision, is what brings us here together for Seconds. As an admitted Radiohead flunky, 1:48 and on of “You and Whose Army?” is one of those goosefleshed expanses that makes me seek someplace to sit, to recover. It’s where Yorke as narrator goes from threat to action; he picks up his staff and he strikes. Yorke himself has always had the air of the stubbed-out schoolchild; it shouldn’t take “Creep” to convince you that this odd, diminutive bloke had seen some awkward times.
After his hesitant taunts, “all your Roman empire/come on if you think/come on if you think/you can take us on,” Phil Selway’s horse-shot beat thumps in and the piano comes to the fore. Yorke gains voice against this crush of synthetic froth, with its hymnal synths and a return of the multi-tracked chorus, and begins that trademarked yelping howl. Headphones will push out a dim, tingling electronic chime; you sense the cell phone in the cinema, the reach of this today into the black glow (the first few times I heard it years ago, I took off the headphones—I thought I heard today on the line, again).
Of a sudden, you sense the battalion switching sides in the dense push of sound and the people growing frenzied at his back. The dim is a whirlwind of fury and apprehension—the gnash of a figure pushed into a corner in uncertain light, of uncertain footing, and left to balance himself where he can and hope he believes enough in his own threat to lash out. Maybe even to throw the first stone, but in knowing that there must be others who feel this way, who know the crush of this mass, and who will step to his call. “You forget so easy,” he says, as the track splits open into an Orff-like rush. And just over a minute later, with uncertain gains, Yorke retreats into the cloudlight and Selway’s drums stop cold, Yorke’s alone again, at the piano, breathing for the first time since the adrenaline faded.
Rotten and haunting, “You and Whose Army” is the song to play when you’ve forgotten the worry. Calmed by growth, we’re tempted to lay down such qualms for the sake of simplicity. Moments of transition arise as we realize how much energy we’ve put into all that naught. Well, what else were we supposed to do? Those lights wouldn’t stop blinking.