Playing God
Radiohead: Amnesiac

adiohead released its fifth full-length album, Amnesiac, in June of 2001, a scant eight months after the release of 2000’s Kid A, an album that either a) proved that major label rock music could live on the outskirts of Listenability (not just pull a quick gas-n-go like The Beatles did with “Revolution 9”) and still speak the same language as the non-commuter masses, or b) showed how self-obfuscation and streamlined indie-cool parasitism were the surest means for a harried bunch of new-mint arena-rock messiahs to make a shell-shocked retreat look like a brave and uncompromised advance.

However, what looked like a self-conscious rush job (a paper-thin excuse at best) turned out to be a belated release of leftover tracks from the same sessions that produced the still-divisive Kid A godsend/abortion. Critics in need of a clue and a catchphrase swallowed the bait whole, calling Amnesiac a continuation of Kid A while patting themselves on the back for cleverly dubbing it Kid B. Of course, the band itself had manufactured this response from the get-go, slyly dropping hints of a full-fledged “return to rock” that left unapologetically rockist critics salivating, eager for Radiohead to stop free-jazzing all over the place and start being the next U2.

Clearly, Radiohead had learned a thing or two about PR from Kid A (look no further than the promotional blitzkrieg for this year’s Hail to the Thief for proof that the boys have learned how to make the system work for them). The fact that those Bends-redux rumors turned out to be a tease, coupled with the redheaded stepchild status of an album made up of also-rans, ensured that Amnesiac’s deliberate holding pattern would be given a wide berth to pass critical muster. At the same time, however, this was a legitimate start-to-finish “album” and not just a patchwork collection of odds ‘n’ sods (though it was Radiohead’s first album since The Bends that didn’t maintain an obvious concept or theme), and so its attributes were certain not to be relegated to the dust bin with alt-rock-god apocrypha like Incesticide or Dead Letter Office.

That said, it’s still a surprise that more critics didn’t see Amnesiac for what it was: a chance for the world’s most over-scrutinized rock band to downgrade expectations by packaging together a bunch of tracks that should have been b-sides (remember that Radiohead released no singles for Kid A). As a stand-alone album taken out of its compendium-based context, Amnesiac is a mild disappointment, an uneven collection of canon-worthy classics, rudderless experiments and retro-minded rehashes that has zero flow past the first five tracks and buries one of its best efforts, “Life in a Glass House” in the closer’s slot behind the literal tune-up “Hunting Bears” and the willful sabotage (more on that later) of “Like Spinning Plates.”

Where Kid A’s experimental studies in post-modern disconnect (“Everything in its Right Place” and “Kid A” in particular) remained grounded in real-world pathos, Amnesiac veers off-course whenever it ignores structural guideposts. “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” shows initial promise, with an insistent electro-throb that explodes from the speakers after the benediction of “Pyramid Song” resolves into an oh-so-brief moment of funereal silence. Unfortunately, the fuzzed-out click track and spaced-out sound effects do little more than disorient, while Thom Yorke’s absurdist, robo-processed dialogue render void whatever visceral impact the music might possess on its own.

After a pair of solid keepables, the incongruous Pablo Honey relic “Knives Out” shows up to derail the album’s midpoint momentum, while the pointless remake of “Morning Bell” is there to ensure that it’s never recovered. “Dollars and Cents” boasts a sinuous bassline and a memorable coda but is too overwrought for its own good, and the less said for “Hunting Bears” the better.

1. Packt Like Sardines in a Crushed Tin Box (LP track)
2. Pyramid Song (LP track)
3. You and Whose Army (LP track)
4. I Might Be Wrong (LP track)

We’ll frontload this reawakened Amnesiac with four of the first five actual album tracks, which represent an initial high-water mark Radiohead failed to revisit for the remainder of this cast-off collection. As openers go, “Packt” doesn’t get much pub next to showier curtain-raisers like “Planet Telex,” “Airbag,” and “2+2=5,” but it nonetheless maintains the band’s reputation for unforgettable entrances with hollow Hawaiian drums and a sterile, flat-lined groove that anticipates Thom’s fame-deadened intonation of the now-infamous would-be threat, “I’m a reasonable man/Get off my case.” Moreover, it sets the tone for the rhetorical slipperiness and palpable emotional distance that characterize the album as a whole.

“Pyramid Song” follows with an afterlife dreamscape that rides an about-to-lose-its-shit piano, mournful strings, and Thom and Ed O’Brien’s ethereal harmonies upwards into the heavens. A personal favorite (send your thoughts to my email address at - no, I’m serious).

After the aforementioned misstep of “Pulk,” Amnesiac seems to find its sea legs with the perennial crowd favorite “You and Whose Army,” a venomous kiss-off to Labour leader-turned-lackey Tony Blair and a literal call-to-arms to the disenchanted masses (when this song is performed in concert, Thom frequently tries to rouse the crowd with frantic arm gestures and other clownish mugging, ostensibly so the frenzied applause will sound like the battle cries of a combat-ready corps bent on regicidal bloodlust).

The vocal-group-for-the-damned vibe dissipates the instant Jonny Greenwood’s guitar spits out the elastic riff to “I Might Be Wrong,” however, and just for once it’s nice to see Thom subsume his vocal tics and rhetorical neuroses beneath the weight of an unstoppable groove, which Greenwood rides through the song’s false ending and then retrieves after Thom’s wordless moans on the world-beater coda.

Now, on to the rescue mission. Note that the Radiohead vault contains a number of other excellent rarities from this time period, which includes a furious fan favorite (“Big Boots”) and a bona fide heart-stopper (“True Love Waits”) that just don’t happen to fit the tone or tenor of this particular fake album.

5. Big Ideas (aka Nude) (various live bootlegs)

No other non-album track in the Radiohead canon gets more and sundrier (Will Strip for “Nude”) concert requests than this quietly devastating ballad. Initial performances included a radiant organ accompaniment, which was later removed, much to the chagrin of hard-liner fan geeks such as myself. The elliptic refrain, “now that you find it/it’s gone/now that you feel it/you don’t” anticipates the no less obtuse bum-trip “just ‘cause you feel it/doesn’t mean it’s there” from Hail to the Thief’s leadoff single, “There There.”

6. Cuttooth (“Knives Out” b-side)

Now don’t get me wrong, I like “Myxomatosis,” it’s just the kind of tough-to-get-your-head-around tone poem that “Dollars and Cents” wishes it could be but just can’t quite pull off. That said, the inclusion of “Cuttooth” here means we’d have to cut “Myxomatosis” from Hail to the Thief (and god knows what we’d choose for a replacement, now that Radiohead has regained the good sense to earmark failed experiments and off-the-cuff, stand-alone lovelies as b-sides rather than put them on their proper albums). The reason: Thom bit his own chorus for “Cuttooth” and dropped it right in the middle of “Myxomatosis,” but it’s the former track that most deserves album status, a prescient bit of political bile (“as the tanks roll into town...a little bit of knowledge will destroy you”) that rides a minimalist, piano-based groove reminiscent of 70s-era Stones, with the raw propulsion and cacophonous clutter of the Velvet Underground.

7. Worrywort (“Knives Out” b-side)

A precocious but never precious trifle that gains added emotional resonance with each repeated listen, it puts the old-Hollywood harps to much better use than Kid A’s “Motion Picture Soundtrack,” and lends a much needed optimistic bent to the latter half of an album in desperate need of one.

8. Like Spinning Plates (IMBW version)

Perhaps Amnesiac’s most heinous crime, and I didn’t even know it until months after the album’s release, when Radiohead “debuted” the song in Cleveland and just happened to unwrap one of the most beautiful instrumental passages of its entire career, a poignant piano figure that speaks volumes more than the backwards-masked bullshit of the original (side note: Radiohead perhaps would have trotted out the new-model “LSP” in Manassas, VA for their slated double-dip of shows at the Bull Run battlefield back in August of 2001, but Mother Nature intervened and made a flash-flood mess of the whole damn deal. Yes, I was there, and yes I’m still bitter. Damn you Bull Run, you took the first of our Confederate sons, then you forced me to spend an entire weekend at an off-ramp Best Western while my favorite band twiddled its thumbs just a few miles up the road).

9. The Amazing Sounds of Orgy (Pyramid Song b-side)

Another end-of-the-world sing-along to bookend “You and Whose Army,” the static-funk bridge might sound too much like Nine Inch Nails circa The Fragile for some, but Thom’s down-with-the-ship refrain of “so glad, so glad you’re mine” is just too demented to pass up. Now I just wish the line “the day the banks collapsed” didn’t always make me think of the end of Fight Club.

10. Kinetic (Pyramid Song b-side)

A suggestion more than a song, as Thom doesn’t do much more than intone “please keep moving/better keep moving” over scattershot drumwork and a manipulated loop of New Age-ish background vocals that sound downright terrifying when taken out of context.

Life in a Glass House (full-length version – “Knives Out” version)

In this once instance, Amnesiac has it all over older brother Kid A, as this album closer far outshines the maudlin-injected “Motion Picture Soundtrack.” The big ticket here is Humphrey Lyttleton’s New Orleans horns, and since you can never have too much of a good thing, we’ll substitute in the “full-length” version from the “Knives Out” single.

By: Josh Love

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