Radiohead amnesiac

‘Amnesiac’ Remains Radiohead’s Freest Record 20 Years Later

Twenty years ago, Radiohead stepped back on Amnesiac, deconstructing their trajectory and tinkering around the edges of their sonic universe.

Parlophone / Capitol
4 June 2001

In an alternate universe, Radiohead released Kid B, the B-sides of Kid A. Of course, that’s not what happened, but that’s what Amnesiac was largely mistaken for. The confusion was understandable—Amnesiac came out just eight months after Kid A (on 5 June 2001), was recorded during the same sessions, and featured an alternative version of signature Kid A track “Morning Bell”. It was always condemned to live in Kid A’s shadow, no matter how much the band insisted it was its own album. 20 years on, the LP remains a dark horse in Radiohead’s discography: a hidden treasure of eerie tape loops, moody vocals, and labyrinthine electronica.

Thom Yorke summed up Amnesiac best: “It sounds like finding an old chest in someone’s attic with all these notes and maps and drawings and descriptions of going to a place you cannot remember”.[1] Indeed, there’s a dreamlike, occultic aura that pervades Amnesiac (Yorke even referred to it as Radiohead’s “secret” back in the day). It’s the Magical Mystery Tour of Radiohead’s catalog: a weird and wonderful detour overshadowed by the bigger and mightier albums around it. It doesn’t have the pop perfection of In Rainbows, the gun-slinging guitarwork of OK Computer, or the cinematic grandeur of Kid A; instead, it adheres to its own distinct vision as a sonic universe beholden to nothing else in the Radiohead pantheon.

Calling Amnesiac Radiohead’s hidden treasure is an apt metaphor in more ways than one, as the album was heavily inspired by ancient mythology and religious texts. Specifically, “Pyramid Song” touches on reincarnation (for instance, the “black-eyed angels” are a reference to an ancient Egyptian term for crocodiles), and “Dollars and Cents” sees Yorke singing about wandering the “promised land”. Even the LP’s cover (which features a crying Minotaur) relates to the lore, with the group’s longtime collaborator, Stanley Donwood, openly drawing inspiration from Greek tradition.

All of this heightens the inscrutable and esoteric feel that characterizes Amnesiac. It’s a record for the initiates, taking the “laptop music” / tape manipulation vibe of its predecessor in even weirder and darker directions. Many songs here began as fragments and failed beginnings of other tracks, twisting the originals into unseemly and unrecognizable shapes. In particular, “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” started as an electronic version of “True Love Waits”—which was resurrected as the closer to 2016’s Moon Shaped Pool). Yet the production is so fuzzed-out (and the percussion so polyrhythmic) that it bears no resemblance to the official cut of that initial piece. Thom Yorke doesn’t even sing on it; he uses autotune to generate randomized melodies out of his own speech. (He credits producer Nigel Godrich for teaching him how to use Pro Tools to manipulate the song before they put it to tape.)

Similarly, “Like Spinning Plates” was born out of a failed attempt to play “I Will” (later appearing on 2003’s Hail to the Thief). Yorke heard the song in reverse and liked it so much that he decided to sing along to the backward melody. Paired with the reversed keyboards and twisted synths, his vocals give the track a hypnotic feel. Something is so beautifully off about the whole thing, just like an actual back-masked song would sound.

But don’t be misled: Amnesiac is not all clicks, cuts, and glitches. As demonstrated on “I Might Be Wrong” (which is still one of the hardest-hitting tracks in the group’s discography), it can still rock, too. Yorke offers a crooning soprano over metallic drums and a venomous, cutthroat guitar riff from Johnny Greenwood. Later, the aforementioned “Dollars and Cents” sees Radiohead go full krautrock, using a jam-session-like approach inspired by the legendary German rock group CAN. The lyrics are classic Yorke, with him poking fun at capitalism’s attempts to dumb down its rebels and commodify everything in sight. “There are better things to talk about/ be constructive/ Bear a weapon we can use/ Be constructive with your blues”, he bellows with what you have to imagine is a massive dose of snark. Clearly, Amnesiac is anything but “constructive”; it’s meandering, painstaking, and worlds away from the commercial heights of ’90s Radiohead.  

In the end, two tracks epitomize Amnesiac more than any others—and every Radiohead fan knows which ones they are. The first is “Pyramid Song”, which features the Orchestra of St. John’s. It’s a dreamy piano ballad where Yorke gets metaphysical by singing about death, reincarnation, astral cars, and going “to heaven in a little rowboat”. There’s no substitute for the chorus, where the violins play in sync with Yorke’s wordless warble. There isn’t another Radiohead song like it.

The other signature track is “Life in a Glasshouse”, which found the band in such a creative statement that Greenwood ended up asking trumpeter Humphrey Lyttleton to help out. Over seven painstaking hours, Radiohead and the Humphrey Lyttleton Band cooked up a sultry, swinging jazz-rock beauty that has 1930s New Orleans written all over it. According to Greenwood, the band also got help from a horn player who had just had open-heart surgery the day before recording. Despite the haphazard recording process, the song became one of the best-loved tracks the group ever made. There are even those who say that Radiohead peaked here, and they wouldn’t be entirely wrong.

Because of its guest appearances, use of failed demos, and “anything goes” approach, Amnesiac has a looser, more patched-together quality than your typical Radiohead LP. While it’s forgivable to see it as Kid A’s B-sides, that doesn’t mean it’s fair. Really, Amnesiac is more like Kid A’s shadow. After one-upping themselves in scale and ambition with each prior studio album, Radiohead stepped back here, choosing instead to deconstruct their trajectory and tinker around the edges of their sonic universe. As Yorke says about the Kid A and Amnesiac period: “The one thing that I was absolutely certain about was that we had complete license to use whatever we wanted”. Amnesiac may not be Radiohead’s most explosive or immediate record, but with its nods to jazz, krautrock, and techno (in the midst of embodying a generally wider bevy of genres than ever before), it’s surely their freest.

[1] Britton, Amy. Revolution Rock: The Albums Which Defined Two Ages. Authorhouse; Bloomington, IN. Page 306