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Radiohead – Looking Back on “Amnesiac” 20 Years Later

One of the Band’s Most Daring and Inventive Albums Came Out in June 2001 via Capitol

Jun 25, 2021 By Austin Saalman
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After setting the standard for millennial music in October 2000 with the release of their seminal fourth album Kid A, critical and commercial expectations for Radiohead were high.

While calls for an OK Computer: Redux seemed perfectly natural following the international success of the group’s monumental, Grammy-winning magnum opus three years prior, many critics and fans alike had found themselves confounded, taken aback, and even offended upon listening to Kid A. Listeners found that, in lieu of the commercially-appealing, guitar-driven alt rock of OK Computer, the group had since decided to embrace a wholly detached electronic sound, complete with feverish flourishes of Krautrock, classical, and mid-century jazz. While retrospective opinion would eventually elevate Kid A to “masterpiece of its time” status, initial response was not as forgiving.

Even now, it would be foolish for any fan or critic to expect Radiohead’s style to remain stagnant, although the shift between ’90s Radiohead and aughts Radiohead was more drastic, being compared to Bob Dylan “going electric,” a controversial move for which some fans likened the musician to Judas Iscariot. Following Kid A’s release, Radiohead were in a similar position, leaving the rest of the world to wonder what was to come. Eight months later, the world received its answer.

Released on June 5th, 2001 to divided responses, Radiohead’s fifth album, entitled Amnesiac, served to further muddy the waters between the band and fans. Not as much a Kid A, Part II, so much as a companion or spiritual sibling, Amnesiac was recorded simultaneously to its predecessor during the same sessions in 1999 and 2000. Perhaps it is best to view both albums as two sides of the same coin—each with its own distinct face. In the case of Kid A, that face is smooth, glossy, and newly minted. Amnesiac, on the other hand, is unvarnished and rough to the touch, rusted in many areas with etchings no longer discernible through the wear.

Amnesiac is a continuation of a story begun in 1997, serving its purpose in the narrative well. If OK Computer represented the final day of Radiohead’s bleak, dystopian empire and Kid A depicted the morning after its obliteration, then Amnesiac is the empty night descending upon its ruins. It complements and contradicts its counterpart, both albums telling two versions of the same story.

Amnesiac unfolds with the metallic percussion and chilly hum of “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box,” a despondent Thom Yorke muttering, “After years of waiting/Nothing came.” This may serve as a very telling statement, especially in hindsight, concerning the sociopolitical climate of the freshly arrived millennium, the state of the music industry, as well as the public’s reaction to Radiohead themselves, all of whom had long since begun distancing themselves from the press and music business as a whole. Upon contemplation, “Pakt” seems to serve as an antithesis to Kid A’s tranquil opening track “Everything In Its Right Place,” setting the stage for an album that is, especially in comparison, all nerves. Lyrics rife with his signature paranoia, Yorke sings them as though in anticipation of the onslaught of criticism and uncertainty to come, dismissing it all with the insistence of, “I’m a reasonable man/Get off my case.”

Amnesiac’s crowning moment arrives early on in the form of the ethereal “Pyramid Song,” Yorke’s otherworldly rumination upon the nature of life, death, and the possibility of rebirth, largely inspired by a visit to an art exhibition in Copenhagen, where Yorke found himself moved by depictions of Duat, the ancient Egyptian underworld. A reprieve from the album’s general sense of irritation and hopelessness, “Pyramid Song” represents Yorke at his clearest, while still maintaining the impersonality of Radiohead’s post-OK Computer output and stopping just short of “intimate.” Here, you will find some of Yorke’s finest lyrics as he conjures the bliss of his reincarnation, opening with, “I jumped in the river and what did I see?/Black-eyed angels swam with me.” Visions of lovers, past and future, grace him beneath “a moon full of stars and astral cars,” a mystical narrative carried along by a somnolent piano melody—nicked from Charles Mingus’s “Freedom”—and Philip Selway’s jazzy percussion, all played out against a shadowy orchestral backdrop, arranged by guitarist/keyboardist Jonny Greenwood. “Pyramid Song” flows like a murky river beneath distant moonglow, a comfortable fever dream packed into an otherwise anxious experience.

As if being torn from slumber, the subsequent “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” comes tearing through, frantically looping around Yorke’s altered voice, robotically describing to the listener various types of doors and their respective functions. While some have rejected this track as a weaker inclusion on the album, it is certainly worth reexamining, as there is a remarkably eerie sense of texture featured throughout. “Pulk/Pull” succeeds in many places where “Hunting Bears” and “Like Spinning Plates”—two of the more experimental tracks on an already highly experimental album—fail to. With the former feeling a bit like a brief intermission arriving too late in a collection which does not require one, and the latter a choppy exercise in sonic experimentation, these two tracks serve as major areas of filler on an otherwise solid album.

More straightforward tracks such as “Knives Out” and “I Might Be Wrong” come the closest to sounding conventionally “Radiohead,” both being more rock-oriented, driven by guitar and melodic vocals. “Knives Out” is especially noteworthy, successfully blending the sounds of “old” Radiohead with the innovative, jazz-centric sensibilities so prevalent on Amnesiac and Kid A, bluntly summing up that point in the group’s career with the lyrics, “Look into my eyes/I’m not coming back.”

The utterly haunting “You and Whose Army?” is an essential track. Moody, defiant, and ultimately triumphant, “Army” showcases some of Radiohead’s finest craftsmanship as composers, balancing subtlety with bombast, the final minute a ghostly battle cry, Yorke declaring that “we ride tonight” in a muffled voice cased in reverberation—a vocal experiment which, according to the band, was done in an attempt to emulate The Ink Spots. Another standout track, as underrated as it may be, is “Morning Bell/Amnesiac,” a gentle reimagining of one of Kid A’s highest points. This version, featuring prominent use of bells and glockenspiel, attains an almost heavenly quality by its conclusion.

One of the most impressive aspects of Amnesiac is its inclusion of jazz arrangements, notably evident in Philip Selway’s percussion, which carries the intriguing “Dollars and Cents,” embodying the group’s unique interpretation of the genre. The same can be spoken of Selway’s contributions to the album’s closing track, which is most certainly one of the most unique songs in the group’s catalogue. Featuring English jazz veteran Humphrey Lyttleton and his band, “Life in a Glasshouse” sees Radiohead doing exactly that at which they had been hinting since the release of Kid A—crafting a straight jazz number. Against the blasting horns and Yorke’s soulful proclamation, “Well, of course I’d like to sit around and chat/But someone’s listening in,” Selway drives the disjointed parade of sound to its final conclusion. It serves as a bold closing track, Yorke repeating once more that “someone’s listening in”—a fitting introduction to the coming decade, which would come to embody each theme present in Yorke’s lyrics.

Twenty years later, certain aspects of Amnesiac which seem almost prophetic, but the same can be said about the brunt of Radiohead’s output. The album in question, however, stands as one of the most daring and inventive inclusions in Radiohead’s catalogue, boasting a couple of the band’s best songs and helping to bridge the gap between the Radiohead of The Bends and OK Computer and the Radiohead who followed, continuing their perpetual evolution with each subsequent album. But Amnesiac is unique, essentially what Adore was to The Smashing Pumpkins—a nocturnal comedown from a monumental hit which left the world expecting of its creators all the wrong things. These comedowns, however, are masterpieces in their own rights, often eclipsing some of the better known material, should one listen intently enough.

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