Review Summary: At the peak of the ambient phase of their career, Amnesiac, while another triumph for Yorke and company, is a misunderstood album, and a criminally underrated one at that
Allow me to bore you with an utterly dull story from my repertoire of boring memories and such: It was a clear, sunny day in the summer of 2001, and I was on my way to one of the most dreaded locations in the universe, the dentist. As I was arguing with my mother about exactly why I needed to get my teeth checked out on this particular day, why couldn’t we just go tomorrow, the opening notes of Radiohead’s Amnesiac
blared from the car’s speakers. I was suddenly put into a trance. This didn’t sound like the normal Lennon/McCartney guitar riffs and vocals I was used to hearing 24/7. This was…..different
. Who was this band, and what had they done with the Beatles, my Beatles? After a small temper tantrum thrown by yours truly, it was explained to me that the music being played was by a new yet very talented band, and that this song was called Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box. "What a weird song title, and a weird band!" I thought to my nine year old self. Little did I know that I would slowly but surely fall deeply in love with these five musicians from Oxfordshire, England who call themselves Radiohead.
As a loyal follower and constant listener of Thom Yorke and co, I am proud to admit that Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box was the first Radiohead song I ever heard. I often think back to that day proudly, looking back as if I had won an award for helping an old lady cross the street or the like. And yet, I had no idea how dark and brooding of an album Amnesiac
truly is. Often referred to as Kid B since most of the songs were written and recorded over the same period the band labored over their (second) magnum opus Kid A
, in no way is Amnesiac
the second rate album the label Kid B alludes to it as being. While a brilliant album, Amnesiac
is a misunderstood, misinterpreted album. It was born under punches; immediately after its release it was beaten around by critics. Given labels such as “Worst Radiohead album since Pablo Honey
”, this and other negative brands were slapped onto the band that, according to Rolling Stone Magazine, “had to destroy rock n roll in order to save themselves” (see August 2001 issue). Thinking that they were justified, these critics forgot the cardinal rule of the Radiohead religion: one must always give a new Radiohead album time to fully sink in before giving it a label/rating. Sure, it was different from the previous record, but isn’t that what Radiohead does with all of their albums?
While anyone can come to the conclusion that Amnesiac’s
closest relative in the Radiohead repertoire is Kid A
, it is no way Kid B. Whereas Kid A
flows well from one track to the next, the same cannot be said for Amnesiac
. If you’re a lover of the Optimistic-into-In Limbo transition found smack-dab in the middle of all the action on Kid A
, unfortunately you won’t find any such transformation from one track to the next on Amnesiac
. The transitions between songs are generally uncomfortable and awkward. Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. The change from a warm, mellow, computer-beat driven track such as Packt into a more ominous yet majestic piano track, Pyramid Song, can be an unexpected yet welcome surprise for the listener. Similarly, a lackadaisical track such as Morning Bell/Amnesiac followed up by the overly-paranoid Dollars and Cents makes for one of the many highlights of Amnesiac
. In addition, experimentation can be found in larger doses on Amnesiac
, contributing to the album’s rich diversity. The dizzying Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors, guitar-oriented Hunting Bears, computer-generated Like Spinning Plates and the brass and woodwind driven Life In A Glasshouse can easily be associated as some of the most experimental Radiohead songs, while the aforementioned Packt and Morning Bell/Amnesiac furthers Radiohead’s trek into unchartered musical territory.
The diversity of the album can be contributed to each members continued dabbing and furthered advancement of knowledge of their respective instruments. Colin Greenwood undoubtedly offers up his darkest yet catchiest bass line in Dollars and Cents (sorry National Anthem lovers, that was Tchock on the bass, not Cozzie). Yorke shows off his knowledge of the piano on the epic Pyramid Song, as well as the eerie crescendo of a song You and Whose Army? (He also plays piano on the live version of Like Spinning Plates. Refer to I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings
for your listening pleasure, if you so choose). Although the guitar work of Johnny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien is more impressive on The Bends
and OK Computer
, tracks such as I Might Be Wrong, Knives Out and Morning Bell/Amnesiac is where the layered guitar work of O’Brien and the younger Greenwood reminds listeners exactly why Radiohead’s instrumentation is difficult to beat. Phil Selway is an enigma on Amnesiac, on some tracks his drumming is a non-factor (Morning Bell/Amnesiac) while on others, it is as all percussion should be, the driving force of the song (Pyramid Song). With Yorke’s hauntingly beautiful vocals in top shape for songs like Pyramid Song and Like Spinning Plates, it will be sure to give the listener goosebumps.
The beautiful thing about Amnesiac
is that there isn’t one single stand out track. With one listen, a listener’s favorite song may be guitar and computer-driven I Might Be Wrong, with the next listen it could very well be the ambient Hunting Bears. Contributing to this factor are Yorke’s ideas of isolation and anxiety, which are found when one closely studies the album’s lyrics (and artwork, which depicts a weeping Minotaur). Packt’s lyrics’ are a sort of plea to the listener, convincing them that “I’m a reasonable man” in hopes that they will “get off my case”. The opening lines of Like Spinning Plates, dealing with the similar theme of helplessness shared with most of the other tracks, whispers “While you make pretty speeches, I’m being cut to shreds”. While critics often claim that the album has a few noticeable missteps, it lies on the listener as to whether this belief is true or not. It comes as no surprise that the non-Radiohead oriented fans and critics won’t like Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors and Hunting Bears. Where the critics end, the job of the listener begins. While one may not understand the more ambient and experimental songs with the first listen, time, like with all Radiohead songs/albums, will eventually lead them to garner a greater understanding and appreciation of the intricacies and advanced music quality of Amnesiac
Last summer, I was privileged enough to see Radiohead perform twice within the span of four days. While I was pleased to hear them play some of my favorite songs (Kid A, Go Slowly, Planet Telex to name a few), the band played only one song from Amnesiac
over the course of the two evenings, Pyramid Song. This segues me to the main point of the review: why isn’t there more love for Amnesiac
? Although Radiohead’s most experimental album, it is not that huge of a departure for the band. And though it was given the insurmountable task of following two of the best albums of the previous ten years, tracks such as You and Whose Army?, Knives Out, Dollars and Cents, and Like Spinning Plates seem to lead Amnesiac
to a deserved victory for the band. From the eclectic, exciting opener Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box, to the woeful, New Orleans funeral-styled closer Life In A Glasshouse, one can only wonder why Amnesiac
is so unappreciated by the music community. And yet, it is this exact reason why Amnesiac
is so good.