Recovering the Memory of Pop: Radiohead’s ‘Amnesiac’

Moody; shifting colors; browns, blacks, deep yellows; faded memories; the will to remember; the intense melancholy of forgetting.

Radiohead’s Amnesiac (Capitol, 2001) is a darker, trippier album than its predecessor, Kid A (2000). Kid A was the distant lament of a lost friend. It described a far-off chaos that was soon approaching. It was a clarion call to evacuate. “Women and children first” sang Thom Yorke in “Idioteque”, the album’s definitive track. Amnesiac, on the other hand, is colored by despair, regret, and foolish pride — it is the lonely wail of a caged animal. The horrible destruction of Kid A‘s “Idioteque” has come at last. Amnesiac is the first person narration of the intense loneliness and terror felt in the explosion’s wake.

This accounts for the drastic change in style on Amnesiac. Gone are the braying horns of “National Anthem”, the raucous, assaulting dance beats of “Idioteque”, and the swirling orchestral score of “How to Disappear Completely”. Radiohead seems to be in a state of stylistic schizophrenia — whereas it was once easy to label something as distinctively ‘Radiohead’, it is now impossible to do so. They jump from style to style with the zeal of a raving lunatic hopping from one topic in conversation to the next. Radiohead are showing themselves to be braver and braver with each album, not afraid to redefine themselves, not willing to be limited to the conventional rock setup of drums, bass, and two guitars. Consequently, on Amnesiac we get the groove-based moodiness of “I Might Be Wrong”, the wailing New Orleans jazz funeral procession of “Life in a Glass House”, the soft 1940s style three-part harmonies of “You and Whose Army?”, the stark watery piano of “Pyramid Song”, the quiet ambient drone of “Hunting Bears”. Intensity has been replaced by nostalgia — a certain feebleness, a certain sadness, a certain tenderness.

Since 1997’s OK Computer, Radiohead have been crafting a horrific vision of modern life in an age of technological global capitalism. Theirs has been the voice of the embattled idealist, desperately hanging on to the shards of authentic identity left to an individual in a world of money and commerce, corporations and conglomerates. The hell of Amnesiac is the fear of becoming just another cog in the corporate machine. In “Dollars and Cents”, a jam-based song of swirling guitars and keyboards, Yorke repeats in a deadpan chant, devoid of feeling, “We are the dollars and cents and the pounds and pence and the mark and the yen. And yeah we’re gonna crack your little souls. We’re gonna crack your little souls.” Kid A was the exploration of our cracked little souls — no Radiohead song better expresses this feeling than the sublime “How to Disappear Completely” in which Yorke has been obliterated completely out of existence and revels in his invisibility. Amnesiac is the interior monologue of the disappeared Yorke trying to make sense of the cage in which he’s found himself.

The distraught paranoia of Kid A has been supplanted by the regret and depressed ambiance of Amnesiac. The album title itself speaks to the importance, yet impossibility, of a meaningful sense of memory. The minimalist dance track opener, “Packed like sardines in a crushed tin box” finds Yorke bemoaning a wasted life of meaninglessness and lethargy: “After years of waiting, nothing came. As your life flashed before your eyes, you realize you’re looking, looking in the wrong place.” In the next track, “Pyramid Song”, we are invited into a watery dream landscape of broken memories and despair: “I jumped into the river, black-eyed angels swam with me. A moon full of stars and astral cars, and all the things I used to see.” There is a lost past here of which we are only getting bits and pieces. Unlike the intense chaos of Kid A, Amnesiac is the charred remains of a once-great fire. Yorke sardonically sings “You forget so easy” on “You and Whose Army?” — in this nightmare world, he seems to be the only one trying to remember.

Amnesiac‘s attempts at memory and recovery are pathetic and tragic. Yorke is riddled with self-doubt and seems to be aware that there are no alternatives. “I Might Be Wrong”, the groove-based centerpiece of the album, chronicles his various attempts at making sense of it all: “I used to think, I used to think, there is no future left at all, I used to think.” Any potential revelation or conclusion, however, is subverted by the song’s sardonic hook, “I might be wrong.” This fatalistic self-consciousness is the smirk of the dispossessed, the beaten, the lost. Pathos reaches it height in “You and Whose Army?” a tender guitar lullaby which finds Yorke feebly offering a defense against the insurmountable forces destroying him: “Come on, come on, Holy Roman Empire. Come on if you think, come on if you think you can take us on.” The sad irony, of course, is that he is alone. He is modern day Don Quixote battling the windmill. The recording is thick and dark as if he were singing from a deep, lonely hole. His mock-bravado is the foolish self-pride of the truly lost. As the song explodes in a burst of piano-driven rock, Yorke wails, “We ride tonight, we ride tonight.” The only option is escape, which is, of course, impossible.

The album’s vicious underbelly rises from this realization of there being nowhere to go. “Knives Out” is Radiohead’s most conventional song since OK Computer, bringing back the Smiths-style clean guitar and soaring melodies characteristic of earlier Radiohead. Despite its catchiness, however, “Knives Out” is a harrowing cannibalism song, a dire proclamation of the hopeless state of things: “So knives out, catch da mouse, squash his head, put him in the pot.” The abstract horror of “Kid A” anticipated this horror with its it proclamation, “We’ve got heads on sticks. We’ve got ventriloquists” — the apocalypse was coming, and we were ready. In “Knives Out”, the apocalypse has come and gone and we’ve been reduced to groveling animals scurrying after mice. After all, Yorke sings, “there’s no point in letting it go to waste.”

There is a dire sense of enclosure and entrapment on Amnesiac that Radiohead has not explored since OK Computer tracks like “Fitter, Happier” and “Climbing Up the Walls”. In the heavy industrial push of “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors”, Yorke’s heavily affected voices narrates a short vignette about the impossibility of escape: “There are doors that let you in and out but never open. But they are trapdoors that you can’t come back from.” There is a stark sense here that any escape is illusory — the only exits are trap-doors. The voice of “Dollars and Cents” is the sardonic voice of the oppressor, the Big Brother, asking, “Why don’t you quiet down? Why don’t you quiet down?”

The forces suffocating Yorke are those of the workaday, utilitarian world. His greatest sin is his listlessness. Again in “Dollars and cents,” he is told, “Be constructive with your blues.” Yorke’s reply comes in “Like Spinning Plates”, a captivating piece of studio experimentation with its swirling musical wash over which Yorke’s voice is turned out and twisted with various effects. “And this just feels like,” sings Yorke, “spinning plates. I’m living in cloud cuckoo land, and this just feels like spinning plates.” As his voice lilts up when he sings “spinning plates,” Yorke is whimsical, silly, and childish — he is being anything but constructive with his blues. “Knives Out” presented the first avenue of escape-vicious, savage, inhuman behavior. “Like Spinning Plates” presents the other — the complete resignation of rational sense, taking off into “cloud cuckoo land” and never coming back again.

The need for connection and human closeness comes out in Radiohead’s drastic change in style. While
Amnesiac does have its fair share of difficult, Aphex Twin-like electronic vignettes (“Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” and “Like Spinning Plates”), this is distinctively human album. Kid A was tight and polished — every sound was meticulously crafted and tweaked. Amnesiac is much looser. “Knives Out” recalls the jangly guitar rock of early R.E.M.; “I Might Be Wrong” is based around a bluesy guitar riff; “Dollars and Cents” is a cut-up rock jam. The focus is less on studio perfection than on band cohesion. The setting is much more intimate than on Kid A or OK Computer. “Hunting Bears” is a quiet, Brian Eno-like guitar and synth instrumental that is fundamentally different from Kid A‘s instrumental, “Treefingers”. “Treefingers” was a smooth, seamless wave of beautiful, colorful sound. The guitar of “Hunting Bears” is distinctively present: you can hear the scratch of the strings, the fingering of the frets, the scraping of the pick. The synth melody that comes in is simplistic and sparse. The impersonality and distance of Kid A has been supplanted. The music, like Yorke, is trying to communicate, to connect.

The most stunning point of connection between the two albums is “Morning Bell”, which has been rerecorded for
Amnesiac under the title “Amnesiac/Morning Bell”. The original was static and dry-cut up drums, electric pianos, harsh vocals. The new version is warm and sad, tragic and depressing. The drums have disappeared, replaced by a bouncy acoustic guitar, bells, and beautiful synths. Whereas the first version was harsh and cold, much like “Knives Out”, the new version is a forlorn love letter. The plea of chorus, “Release me, release me, please,” is no longer triumphant but rather startling in its hopelessness. The “please” is of one beaten beyond recognition, mindlessly desiring an impossible freedom.

I see Radiohead’s albums as forming a clear trajectory that culminated with Kid A. Pablo Honey found them exploring the genre of pop-rock in an unspectacular, fairly conventional way. With The Bends, however, they began to take the genre and make it their own. There was a grandness, an epic-ness, a huge synth-guitar-wailing vocal cacophony on The Bends that signaled something new, something fresh. OK Computer was the crowning achievement in this development. It was huge, savage pop-rock, it was quiet, delicate anguish, it was dark, brooding angst, it was cut-up rock/electronica-it was simply a masterpiece.

Kid A, however, burnt up in flames, replacing the rock-gods version of Radiohead with a more challenging brand of electro-rock, based as much on songwriting as on studio experimentalism. It was distant, difficult, a real piece of artistry. The term rock began to feel increasingly inappropriate for Radiohead’s unique mixture of ambient, rock, and jazz. Kid A was a tearing down of all that OK Computer had built up. Amnesiac begins to build a new pop aesthetic that incorporates the feeling, the humanity, the beautiful elegance of Radiohead’s earlier work with the artistry, the skill, the tact of their later albums. Whether or not they are successful is anyone’s guess. This album is admittedly not as powerful as Kid A in many respects-nowhere are there songs as intense and bristling with action and desire as “Idioteque” and “National Anthem”; nowhere is there a song as sublimely beautiful and tragic as “How to Disappear Completely”. But nonetheless, Amnesiac finds Radiohead in a state of transition, trying to claw their way back towards humanity through a version of pop music both engaging and difficult, intimate and removed, yearning to reach out and grab you but somewhat unable to move at all.

That is not to say that Amnesiac does not have songs that measure up to those on Kid A. “Pyramid Song” begins as a quiet wash of dream lyrics over a simple piano line, eventually blowing up into a sad explosion of pounding strings and gorgeous vocals. It is a more subdued, depressed, and perhaps more artistically mature song than “How to Disappear Completely”. “I Might Be Wrong” also breaks new ground for Radiohead. It is a moody electronic rock song, driven by the gradual variations on the drum and bass lines. Amnesiac’s most sublime moment comes when “I Might Be Wrong”, threatening to escalate into a wall of white electronic noise, suddenly cuts out-a sparse clean electric guitar comes in while Yorke sadly croons in his high, sad falsetto. The drums and bass slide back, more subtle and quiet than before, as the song gently makes its exit. It is a sexy and impressive example of what Radiohead can accomplish by pushing the limits of conventional rock music.

All of these issues in Amnesiac come together in the album’s last track, “Life in a Glass House”. The mood is somber old-time jazz as Yorke mournfully croons about the elusiveness of true connection and communication: “Well, of course, I’d like to sit around and chat. Well, of course, I’d like to stay and chew the fat . . . but someone’s listening in.” An album full of attempts at memory and cohesion peters out in fatalistic paranoia. While Amnesiac starts with a regretful look back on the mistakes of a life gone wrong in “Packt like sardines in crushed tin box,” this new self-knowledge does not translate into action or redemption. A life in a glasshouse is the perfect Radiohead image-the solitary individual trapped by invisible forces, on display, unable to retaliate without destroying the entire supervening structure. The savageness of “Knives Out” and “Dollars and cents” returns as Yorke rages against the invisible walls of his cell: “Once again we are hungry for a lynching. That’s a strange mistake to make. You should turn the other cheek, living in a glass house.” It is a strange mistake to make, but in the context of Amnesiac, an entirely understandable one-all attempts at reconciliation end in emptiness or savagery.

“Life in a Glass House” is fundamentally different from
Kid A‘s closer, the elegiac ballad “Motion Picture Soundtrack”. There was a glimmer of hope of redemption in the song’s final line, “I will see you in the next life.” Amnesiac‘s attempt to put back together that which was broken down in Kid A ends in failure: instead of seeing you in the next life, Yorke can’t even talk to you for fear that “someone’s listening in.”