Recorded in the same time period as its predecessor, Kid A, Radiohead’s fifth release, Amnesiac, follows in a similar vein of aural experimentation. The only difference this time out is that we have had a period of time to adjust to the “new” Radiohead, a band who has forsaken the mantle of guitar gods bestowed upon them with such albums as The Bends and OK Computer. Also, Amnesiac is more accessible due to the album’s more personal nature and (somewhat) more straightforward songwriting. The result is a brilliant combination of sounds and statements that is so compelling in spots that a listener suspends belief.
This is not to say that the album is flawless. One of the tracks, “Morning Bell/Amnesiac,” is a reworked version of the same song from the last album, and while it’s a swell song, why include it again? Also, Thom Yorke’s (and one would have to imagine, the rest of Radiohead’s) fascination with electronica on such cuts as “Hunting Bears” and “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” makes those tracks little more than bridges between stronger songs, and tends to drag the pace of the record down. But when it shines, on such songs as “Knives Out” (a number that sounds more like The Bends-era Radiohead) or the majestic “Pyramid Song,” the band proves themselves near masters of pop art. I defy anyone to listen to the careening “I Might Be Wrong,” with its pogoing guitar and snap drums, and not turn up the volume. “You and Whose Army” and the closing “Life in a Glasshouse” sound a bit like a three way collaboration between Radiohead, a woozy Tom Waits, and the backing of Andrew Bird.
Radiohead now in exists in the same rarified air as R.E.M., U2, and the like, a place that means massive media attention and endless critiques of each utterance from on high. Anyone with a passing knowledge of the group understands their discomfort with certain aspects of stardom — watch Meeting People Is Easy — and with each new release, the band moves further away from the fan base that wants an endless rehash of “Creep” or “My Iron Lung.” With Amnesiac, the band solidly defines its sound in a harsh, unapologetic manner. An invitation exists to join them, but only on their terms. For those who can, the experience is revitalizing. For those who only want musical wallpaper, they won’t stop here long. Which all in all, isn’t perhaps a bad thing. No one (most particularly, one suspects, the band themselves) knows what the future holds for Radiohead. The band has been encoring with a version of Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl,” and new material is said to be more raucous and guitar-based. It is this method of musical reinvention that keeps Radiohead — and all good rock and roll — vital, vibrant, and fresh. The results won’t satisfy all listeners — the last time that happened seems to have been Frampton Comes Alive — but the journey will be amazing.
Capitol Records; http://www.radiohead.com