Radiohead has produced one more giant sledgehammer of a record. Even if one doesn’t “like” the avant-garde, minimalist, electronic and melancholic leanings, there’s no good reason to immediately dismiss the new direction, as many have done. Because how many rock bands — once they have captured our attention — have imploded right in front of our eyes from the pressure to produce meaningful, timely or even decent music?
Rather than follow this trajectory, Radiohead has instead come out the other end of a necessary crisis with a startling clarity of artistic evolution, vision and responsibility. And they did so under the full and inscrutable focus of the world’s eyes while being sensitive and admittedly unstable people.
Beyond that, however, the music itself is a perfect example of form and content coming together to create the sound track for our shared modernity — which is precisely why Radiohead’s music has connected with such a loyal and devoted following.
Recorded at the same time as last year’s Kid A (although the band is keen to point out that this isn’t a collection of outtakes), Amnesiac is ultimately both beautiful and unnerving. Tracks such as the opening “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box,” “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” and “Like Spinning Plates” are more explorations of the hard-edged, Warp Records-influenced electronics first heard on Kid A.
Thom Yorke repeats lyrics such as “I’m a reasonable man/Get off my case” in what is as much an attack on catchy, chorus-based pop music as the emptiness of our civilization.
This anti-chorus, linear approach is apparent throughout Amnesiac. The magic is that each song remains entirely memorable and haunting for reasons other than mere rhythm and melody.
The Charles Mingus-influenced single “Pyramid Song” captures equal feelings of regret and peace in the same five-minute span, while the anti-Tony Blair sentiments of “You and Whose Army?” ends with the repeating lines —only Yorke could deliver them so effectively — “You ought to know/I’m so sad.”
There are so many moments of grin-inducing grace throughout Amnesiac: the vaguely Stone Roses-sounding and infectious guitar riff on “I Might Be Wrong,” the prototypically great Radiohead track “Knives Out,” the stripped-down revisiting of Kid A’s “Morning Bell” and the undercurrent of writer Naomi Klein on “Dollars & Cents.”
Amnesiac ends with the jarring, Dixieland-esque “Life in a Glasshouse,” an entirely appropriate tale of a women dealing with the scrutiny of tabloids, on which Yorke sings, “Well of course I’d like to sit around and chat/but someone’s listening in.”
Brian Eno once said, “The most important thing in a piece of music is to seduce people to the point where they start searching.” Right now there’re millions of listeners searching for meaning in the so-called radical departures of Amnesiac and Kid A. And if some still see Radiohead as disappointing the fans, then perhaps those critics should think about looking in a different direction for their musical kicks. Because you can’t expect much more from human beings.
Aaron Warshaw is the MT listings editor. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.