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Saturday, February 3, 2018

Radiohead: Amnesiac

RADIOHEAD: AMNESIAC (2001)

1) Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box; 2) Pyramid Song; 3) Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors; 4) You And Whose Army?; 5) I Might Be Wrong; 6) Knives Out; 7) Morning Bell; 8) Dollars & Cents; 9) Hunting Bears; 10) Like Spinning Plates; 11) Life In A Glass House.

General verdict: Inventively excruciating, in a nails-on-smorgasbord sort of way.

It might not seem fair to pronounce any general judgements on Radiohead's artistic behavior in the 21st century based on an album that is, essentially, a set of outtakes from the Kid A sessions: something that explains both the speed with which it was thrown on the market (one year in between records is not at all typical for Radiohead) and the fact that nobody I know has ever dared to rate it above Kid A. Two circumstances, however, still work against the band. One — these songs are by no means «rejects»: in fact, one of the original plans was to release Kid A as a double album, but somebody probably dissuaded them from the idea, so as to soften the blow for «rockist» fans just a little bit. Two — in no way does Amnesiac ever sound like an auxiliary detour; on the contrary, it ties in very organically and logically as a legitimate album in its own right that paves the way from Kid A to Hail To The Thief and beyond.

It is also the first Radiohead album that reads as an almost perfect blank to me. Where OK Computer was an artistic marvel, only so slightly obscured with faint hints of excesses to come, and where Kid A was a confusing mix of good songs, risky production, and art-for-art's-sake, Amnesiac is essentially just a collection of textures and atmospheres. It completes the transition of Radiohead from a band that used to make strong, firm, sharp, soul-pinching musical statements (even Kid A still had a few of those) to a band that spends most of its time splashing buckets of musical paint against the wall, then forcing you to sit on the floor and watch that paint dry. Which, I admit, may be a form of therapy for an actual amnesiac, but still gives no excuse for forcing this amnesia on the unhappy listener.

I draw the line at the album's opening track, ʽPackt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Boxʼ (and the spelling only adds to the indignation — at least be consistent about it and devoice crushd to crusht if you have just done it for packt). Its soft, fragile percussive loops, ultrasoundish key­boards and murmury autotuned vocals probably imply that the protagonist of ʽEverything In Its Right Placeʼ has been finally stripped of all emotionality and sensitivity, and pretty much reduced to a human robot in a low-power state. This is a solid, if not particularly original, concept, but the problem is that they got so carried away by all the stripping and quieting down that they forgot to make the track exciting, be it with crude or subtle means. If you listen to it long enough, think about it, read about it, think about it some more, you might come to appreciate its symbolic value; but how could it ever become a feast for the senses if there is nothing to feast on?..

Throw in ʽPyramid Songʼ, and you get the second (and pretty much the last) avatar of the album: moody piano + nasal Thom Yorke = pure melancholia without memorable melodies. Think back to ʽLuckyʼ, when these things were done on an epic scale, with crescendos and climaxes and cliffhangers; ʽPyramid Songʼ tells you that crescendos, climaxes, and cliffhangers are boring clichés that constrain expressivity, and that the right way to do this thing is to simply let it flow. Slowly, smoothly, atmospherically, with minimalistic waves of electronic strings rolling across the rudimentary piano chords. Of course, the piano chords themselves are jazzy, inspired by Charles Mingus' ʽFreedomʼ, so it would be sacrilegious to call this music Radiohead's equivalent of «adult contemporary», right? Well, if nobody else is going to come out and do it, I'm ready to take the blow — this is a very dull track, and Thom's «Tristan-is-down-to-his-last-ounce-of-blood» vocal delivery only helps milk curdle faster.

Need one last crippling blow? The same formula is then repeated in the same way, with ʽPulk/Pull Revolving Doorsʼ reprising the wimpy percussion loops and autotuned vocal samples of ʽPacktʼ, and ʽYou And Whose Army?ʼ giving us another melted-down ballad, this time one that might have provided Bon Iver with the blueprint for about half of their songs. And yes, none of this would be so horrible if it weren't so pretentious — but the idea behind this, see, is that Radiohead continue making High Art, leaving behind the plebs-oriented song structures, melodi­city, energy, and focus of their naïve, misguided, silly musical adolescence.

I count exactly two songs... — err, excuse me, «art pieces», «songs» is such a lame term — on the album that have at least a tiny bit of emotional power to them. ʽI Might Be Wrongʼ is just a con­solatory bone thrown to rock music lovers, with its twirling bluesy riff (dropped D tuning! hey, that's like Led Zep's ʽMoby Dickʼ!); and ʽKnives Outʼ, supposedly inspired by Johnny Marr, has a lovely guitar melody and, for once, a strong croon rather than wimpy whine from Thom — the combination of these factors makes it an obvious standout, and, not surprisingly, this is the only song on the entire record that I could easily envisage on The Bends or OK Computer.

As the record nears its conclusion, the band toys more and more with all kinds of jazz, a fascination that reaches its climax with ʽLife In A Glass Houseʼ, for which they had enlisted an actual jazz band to make it sound like New Orleanian funeral music (deconstructed, of course; for constructed New Orleanian funeral music, you are welcome to come directly to New Orleans). Admittedly, this is at least more novel than their boring electronic diddlings, yet in both cases, the main problem remains the same — Radiohead are simply not very good at handling electronic devices, just as they are not very good at showing how they can make the transition from rock to jazz. The only glue that keeps gluing it all together is Yorke's teary depression, and there is only so much teary depression a man can take.

Putting it bluntly, Amnesiac is crap. In theory, I have nothing against records that try to combine experimental musical textures with drowning in one's own tears in the face of complete helpless­ness against the evil weight of the world. But when the «experimentation» in question means poking your nose into genres for which you don't really have either the feel or the knack, and when, at the same time, the tears are beginning to reach the level of Alice in Wonderland... like I said, this is where I draw the line. Of course, Amnesiac is art: it is analyzable, it is layered, it takes risks and tests out ideas, it even goes further than Kid A in breaking up the pop formula, and, hell, it displaced Shaggy's Hot Shot from the top spot on the UK charts, so it did at least something good in this world. But in terms of fulfilling the greatest function that music, as an art form, is supposed to fulfill — as far as I am concerned, it fails just as miserably at this as Shaggy did, if not more so.

Technical note: the 2-CD special reissue of Amnesiac collects a bunch of B-sides and live ver­sions of Amnesiac songs, but excuse me if I do not make any comments on any of these, because this album has come that close to making a certified amnesiac out of me.

9 comments:

  1. Aww. I knew if you didn’t have any significant liking for “Kid A”, there was no way in hell you were going to like this, but I hoped you’d at least get something out of “Pyramid Song”... oh well.

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  2. I will be fascinated to hear George write about In Rainbows, because for all intents and purposes, that's a very soulful, organic and humble album. I'm bracing myself for him to write it off as more meandering Art Rock when it's really more like folksy jam music.

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    1. Were the same piece of music written by John Lennon or Paul McCartney in the 60's I'm sure he'd be positive about it =)
      To each his own of course. I like th ePyramid Song and Knives Out here, but otherwise never got much out of Amnesiac and it's far from the quality of any of the surrounding Radiohead albums (except for King of Limbs)

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  3. I guess I embrace the album for exactly the same reasons you despise it. Cool!

    Then, I'm not sure if music has any supposed "function" (great or not) to fulfill.

    The B-Sides are sorta intriguing.

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  4. Being a fan of 60s/70s music back in 2002 I really couldn't start listening to contemporary artists, writing off electronic music as soulless crap and viewing such pop-oriented acts as Beck or Fatboy Slim merely as dickheads sampling good stuff from good old 60s/70s for the bad songs for bad people of bad 00s.

    'Amesiac' was my introduction to the modern music. A college friend who was into Pink Floyd lent me the CD. And boy was I intrigued. Radiohead's music seemed to be a world of its' own. I couldn't find a spot on the whole record (well, probably except 'Knives Out') I could connect with my past musical experience or expectations but what's more important I could feel the *soul* in these songs (yes, the tears you're talking about — "the misery" as I got used to call it later) and it got me hooked. Even the title of 'Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box' was fascinating — like, guys, the society wants you to spell it "packed", why do you rebel against the society, guys? Anyway, I've finally found modern music I couldn't call derivative or soulless anymore and this really opened the door for new sounds.

    I understand (and agree) with your point of view, that on the grand scheme of things this record basically is a lazy and cargo-cult-like exploitation of 'Kid A' approach. But for a moment this record felt like a universe to me and I'm thankful for that.

    Anyway, I'd spare a place in my lifelong playlist for 'Dollars & Cents' and 'I Might Be Wrong'. Also now I'm a bit shy to admit the 'hookless' hook in the lines 'I’m a reasonable man / Get off my case, get off my case' still sticks to my mind.

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  5. Wow! Savage!

    Yeah, this one is probably the most indulgent of Radiohead's releases, at least until "King of Limbs"...

    But I don't know, I'm really into it. I'm able to locate hooks in these songs. Big oppressive slabs of sound, but Thom Yorke has me the whole way. It's only when he leaves... On "Pulk/Pull" and "Hunting Bears"... that I'm like, what's the point?

    I still think "You and Whose Army" is one of the coolest songs they ever did. And such a blast to play on guitar! So many minor chords to master...

    Anyway, keep it up, George. I goddamn love your reviews of everyone, especially when they challenge the critical consensus...

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  6. I always wondered whether Kid A might have been better if the crappier songs on it had been replaced by the better ones from Amnesiac. I like this version of "Morning Bell" better than the one on Kid A, and the last two songs at least sound like music, so I prefer them to "Idioteque" or "The National Anthem."

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  7. The first Radiohead I’d heard, and I liked it instantly. But also I was a sensitive kid who got soul and emotions from pretty much everything I heard. Still my favorite Radiohead album, along with The Bends.

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  8. Thom's a reasonable man. Get off his case.

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