Well, what did you expect? Choruses?
Parlophone CD FHEIT 45101
Late 1998 to late 2000. Guillaume Tell Studios, Paris; Medley Studios, Copenhagen; Radiohead’s rehearsal studio, Oxford.
Radiohead & Nigel Godrich
LET US, WITH a wobbly dissolve, revisit September 2000. It is raining like a bastard. Concert-goers are returning from the Newport show that heralds the release of Radiohead’s Kid A, raving about two songs, Knives Out and You & Whose Army?, easily the most robust of the eerie new pieces premiered. They wend homewards, agreeing that the new tunes sound weird but good, but that they prefer the ones with the drums and guitars to the ones where Jonny Greenwood twiddles his FX knobs and Thom Yorke plays the spinet.
That Knives Out and You & Whose Army? did not make it onto the delicate, Tiny Tim Cratchitt of an album that emerged seemed evidence enough of Radiohead’s commercial death wish. When it was hinted that these songs would form the centrepiece of a follow-up LP, possibly as early as April 2001, disappointment gave way to anticipation. Subsequently, heroically, Tiny Tim dragged his be-calipered leg to the top of the US albums chart; in Britain he had been forgotten already. And why? Because Amnesiac was coming.
NO ALBUM OF the modern pop era has overshadowed its predecessor as ominously as Amnesiac. Kid A’s obstetrician had barely slapped its arse than its five fathers had stubbed out their cigars and set about plugging its sibling. Amnesiac, in the words of Ed O’Brien, would comprise songs that “didn’t fit” on Kid A. Nobody imagined this meant songs like The Lambeth Walk or Black Dog or I’m Horny (Horny, Horny Horny), but the presumption was that this would be more of a rock band record with some big old tunes.
Well, forget that. Amnesiac is a companion work to Kid A in the way that David Bowie’s” Heroes” complements Low or (steady, now) King Crimson’s In The Wake Of Poseidon echoes In The Court Of The Crimson King. As per Kid A, it opens with the track most overtly influenced by radical techno music, and, in a move that dooms the two records to be forever spoken of in the same breath, both pivot on a version of Morning Bell (in this instance entitled The Morning Bell Amnesiac), more of which later. Amnesiac is similarly shy, textural and embroidered by electronica, but where it differs vitally from Kid A is in being 1) better balanced, 2) more emotionally intelligible and 3) even more grimly beautiful.
The aforementioned opener is Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box. With its electro-gamelan intro and grotesquely garbled voices, it ups the ante on Kid A’s Everything In Its Right Place and could even be its answer song. It is a grumbly old thing, but it does not prepare the listener for the break tundra that follows. Pyramid Song, chosen as the single presumably to bark a hollow laugh in the face of daytime radio, is almost certainly about the consolations of suicide. A piano evokes water lapping on a shoreline, Yorke imagines “black-eyed angels” swimming alongside him. Way, way in the background a sawing string section create a shimmery hubbub which sounds exactly how you would imagine black-eyed angels to sound. Especially when they’re swimming.
“We all went to heaven in a little row boat,” Yorke warbles, remembering the children’s skipping song, Tom Waits’s Clap Hands or (and we would pay money for this to be true) the Belle Stars’ The Clapping Song. A superb Eastern string melody is tossed away as a chord turnaround and drummer Phil Selway cranks the beauty and anguish up and down with each patter and tish. Yorke played this live, alone, at the piano at a 1999 Amsterdam show, only then it was called “Nothing To Fear”. There weren’t a lot of people dancing.
Either Yorke’s lyrics are better this time, or the comparative voluptuousness of the vocal performances make it easier to tune in, or we’ve finally grasped what he’s been getting at since abandoning OK Computer’s more straightforward man-vs-society musings.
Accidentally, perhaps, Amnesiac is an incremental, song-by-song construction of a dream realm full of implied horror, reinforced by nursery rhyme, kiddie phrases and musical irony. Indicative of the latter is Pull Pulk Revolving Doors, where Yorke’s treated voice struggles against hard, ragged-edged beats to deliver what at first seems a banal list. “There are sliding doors and there are secret doors,” he monotones. “There are doors that lock and doors that don’t, there are doors that let you in and out but never open, but there are trapdoors…” At which the bottom falls out of the music and we are left plummeting through space.
There isn’t a band around who can mock, frame, comment upon or elucidate the activities of their singer better than Radiohead. So it’s a shame we don’t hear more of O’Brien, Selway and the Greenwoods. Arguably, Amnesiac’s central troika of You And Whose Army?, I Might Be Wrong (the first US single) and Knives Out could be their partial retort to this post-Kid A gripe. Guitars are certainly more prominent in this selection, not only in Thom Yorke’s étude, Hunting Bears, but also in the grainy blues riff that drives I Might Be Wrong and Jonny Greenwood’s delay pedal-picking that embroiders Knives Out, the album’s best ensemble piece and a close relative of Paranoid Android.
Like You And Whose Army?, Knives Out’s lyric is a collage of playground taunts. As before, we cannot know how serious the narrator is or what real-life nastiness the flippancy masks: “Cook him up, squash his head, put him in the pot.” Ewww.
Two thirds in and so far, so good but, really, what are we to make of The Morning Bell Amnesiac? Did Thom Yorke run out of songs? Probably not, as there’s still no room for Big Boots, one of the band’s most anticipated works-in-progress. Here it’s darker, more funereal and organic than its Kid A cousin, and what sounded like “cut the kids’ hair” on Kid A is now unarguably “cut the kids in half”, Yorke making the song much more transparently about divorce. Perhaps this is Radiohead telling us that they are now a jazz band, offering “interpretations”.
And the rest? Dollars & Cents is an over-long attempt to employ a string section, hinting at the mad crescendos of Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew, but actually the first to bite the dust in the Compile One Album Out Of Kid A And Amnesiac pub game that won’t be sweeping the nation this month. Like Spinning Plates is a buzzing technofied vignette promoted to a status beyond its means. Hunting Bears you know about. Life In A Glasshouse is Amnesiac’s final revelation: a Humphrey Lyttelton-enhanced New Orleans funeral march with Yorke delineating the demise of a passionate friendship in this new, half-symbolic way of his. It is brilliant music ending a largely fine record and – even better – it has a ring of truth about it.
SO WHERE DOES Amnesiac leave the Radiohead project? As an exercise in de-branding, it’s going swimmingly. They’ve deconstructed their rock bandness and their appeal is becoming more selective. Maybe this will make them happy. Meanwhile, Yorke sounds as bereft as Bono at the end of Pop or Ian Curtis at the end of Closer. In Amnesiac, he has built a vision of hell: numb, petty, desolate and with no obvious escape route. Party on, Thom.