RECALL TO ARMS
(Presentation of the article in the NME Originals issue about Radiohead from 2003)
As the rapid response to 'Kid A', there's an expectation that 'Amnesiac' will at last reveal Radiohead's secret cache of pure-gold songs, and see the band stepping out of their closely guarded shadows, peeling off their techno-terrorist balaclavas and releasing the music they always really wanted to make. Yet if this record was an experimental ceasefire, a hands-up, give-the-people-what-they-want show of goodwill, it would ruin everything. 'Kid A' would be diminished as an act of rockstars throwing an avant-garde tantrum just because they could; 'Amnesiac' would seem cowardly, contemptuous, a cheap placebo, a safety catch. The presence of a single might have lulled people into thinking this was a band lightening up, but 'Pyramid Song' is about visions of rivers and "black-eyed angels". It sounds like a piano dying in a blizzard. It's no stand-down, no détente. No get-out clause for a band in this deep.
Despite Thom Yorke's assertions that 'Amnesiac' stands alone, it complements 'Kid A' so beautifully, develops it with such conviction, that the idea Radiohead ever cut themselves off to spite their fans suddenly seems irredeemably churlish. You can see the shared genes: the jazz spasms and electronic pulsings, the chill blood, and most of all, the chronic hypersensitivity to the world outside. It feels like a record that would blister if you touched it, allergic to modern life, shut away in a protective tent. It reports on half-remembered contact and conflict, blurred images seen through milky plastic. The opening 'Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box' recreates a violent flashpoint using only the line "I'm a reasonable man - get off my case" and a collect call to Squarepusher's 'Budokhan Mindphone'. The blinking circuitry and vocal distortions of 'Pull Pulk Revolving Doors' proves that 'Fitter Happier' was the other key moment of 'OK Computer'. 'Like Spinning Plates' sounds just like its title, Yorke apparently being dragged through his mouth backwards while a centrifugal electro-spin sends nausea rising, while even 'Knives Out', the tumble of guitar and emotion that most clearly alludes to their past, is taut with physical strain, with drowning and cutting and the order "throw him in the car".
Yet there is bile here that could burn through steel. 'You And Whose Army' is a protest song so dismissive only the word "cronies" gives the game away. 'Dollars And Cents' renders its garbled fury as subterranean jazz while 'Life In A Glasshouse' combines furious paranoia ("Someone's listening...") with Humphrey Lyttelton's lugubrious jazz trumpet. It would be easy to see it as an unwell record, the effacement of the human band representing a dislocated mind. After all, Thom Yorke has often been portrayed as Kid AI, the lost android-waif adrift in a world he does not understand. Equally, his reluctance to become a generational spokesman has often been attributed to shyness, insecurity, compulsive privacy. Instead, 'Amnesiac' hints at a darker, better truth: this is a record that choses its rarefied isolation, feels its elevation; a damaged record, yes, but not a fragile one. Radiohead are in their heaven and nothing's right with the world. (8)