REVIEW: Radiohead: Amnesiac
Radiohead: Amnesiac (EMI, 2001)
Although the general public seems to be slobbering at the thought of this album (which isn't to be released until June), the Internet's pirates have had their grubby hands on it for at least a week now, and it's been name-dropped at numerous music news sites. That said, Nude as the News seems to have inexplicably removed their review, leading me to believe that EMI's lawyers are prowling... but well, if worse comes to worse, Tangmonkey gets shut down, sued for a hundred grand, and we have to toss Gareth into slavery. Which, coincidentally enough, is on our To-Do list. (Hey, stickers just don't seem to be bringing in enough hits.) That all said, if EMI's shutting people down for simply reviewing this disc, imagine what they'd do if they knew that I've got the new Björk album, Vespertine. It's not due out till August!
er. oops! (queue riotous laughter)
It was rumoured in the Fall that this new album was going to be more conventional; a return to Radiohead's guitar rock roots. Well, the rumour was wrong. Sure, Amnesiac's got more twang than Kid A did, but hell, so do most saxopohone solos. No, this album's more Aphex Twin than Three Doors Down, and, frankly, I like it that way. It was Kid A not OKC that caused me to fall in love with Radiohead, so it's no surprise that I greeted the whirrs, clicks and warbles of Amnesiac with open arms. In fact, Amnesiac's greatest weaknesses - and, in fact, what keeps it from being a great album - are in those moments where Radiohead can't help but pick up their electric guitars and thrash out something conventional. These boys are anything but conventional - they proved that to me, without any doubt, in Toronto last December - but something seems to be pulling them back to their "Creep" roots. And that blows.
The album's got a fantastic start: a jungly, organic woodblock beat, a rhythm soon joined by a synth pulse à la "Idioteque". "Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box" [sic] is a terrific song, one that gave me a warm frisson and hooked me right off the bat. This is significant: Amnesiac is indeed a warm album - a distinct change from the wintry landscapes of Kid A. From "Packt Like Sardines...", the album does not consistently improve, but it doesn't exactly fall flat, either. The lyrics remain typical nu-Radiohead, ranging from the depressed to the incomprehensible. Songs like "Knives Out" and "Dollars and Cents" remain disappointingly mundane, similar to the last album's 'hit', "Optimistic", but there is more than enough innovation to go around. Things get downright weird during "Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors", a 4:06 ambient squeak piece, a few croaked-out words being tossed and turned by alternating forces. While "Treefingers" (and Amnesiac's similar, but more 'Dead Man'-soundtrack-like "Hunting Bears") are inoffensive thirty second trips into the Warp Records back-catalog, "Revolving Doors" is a full-fledged descent into electronica. What's significant is that it succeeds, and this is true in the case of all of this album's experiments. The strings in "Pyramid Song", the choral component of "You And Whose Army", the disorienting backwards lyrics of "Spinning Plates" - these things show a marked improvement from their uses in previous songs, dwarfing the attempts of tracks like "How to Disappear Completely". The pièce de resistance is the horn-infused "Life in a Glass House". Unlike the anarchic skronk of "National Anthem", here we hear the smooth slide of jazz trumpet, the needling of a clarinet, the ambience of a dusky, smoke-filled jazz club that is also hinted at elsewhere in the album. It is so human, so warm... This is what Radiohead should be doing: surprising us. Not mucking about in an attempt at radio-friendliness (see "I Might Be Wrong") or remixing other songs into good, but B-side worthy material (see "Amnesiac/Morning Bell"). No, Thom Yorke should be pulling his best Billie Holiday, Colin and Jonny should be twiddling their knobs (not those knobs, sicko), and Ed should be, well, doing as he's doing. Drumming, I suppose.
If Radiohead had had the self-confidence to explore all of these landscapes to their fullest, instead of always stepping back to the familiar, we'd have ourself a gem, here. Instead, let's call it a semi-precious stone. The heights that it reaches, the astounding worlds it touches upon, are all tarnished by the boys' need to rock, or something. Who knows, maybe the EMI lawyers are on their tails, too.