Who does Radiohead think they are? How dare they trick us all into thinking they might be one hit wonders, and how dare they leave that question unanswered until the release of their third album OK Computer. And what did we get for pronouncing them the most important rock band of the ‘90s? A showy couplet of albums that, upon first examination, make even less sense than U2’s Zooropa. I’m supposed to believe that Kid A and its companion piece, Amnesiac, are products of the quietly mad genius of one Thom Yorke and his radio headmates; I’m supposed to call it all brilliant.
I’ll be the first to admit that I listened with prejudice when Kid A found its way through my computer speakers via an anonymous file-sharer. I wanted OK Computer II or, at the very least, something that brazenly announced the new music revolution. I’ll also freely admit that I was a bit harsh on the album. A year later, I’ve given up harboring for the Radiohead of yore and, in turn, I’ve acquired a fuller understanding of the band’s problem: they just won’t play by the rules.
“After years of waiting, nothing came,” Yorke slurs, cloaked with Kid A-style clanks and drum machinanigans on Amnesiac‘s opening track. “I’m a reasonable man/Get off my case.” He could be responding to those such as myself, though he’s not. “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” is a sonic experiment that finds the band taking structural and lyrical lessons from electronic high priestess Björk. Yorke’s massively altered vocals are a meditation on doors; doors of all kinds actually (“There are doors that lock/And doors that don’t/There are doors that let you in and out/But never open”), offering the sneaking suspicion that the track is about much more than just doors.
Surprise! “I Might Be Wrong” features electric guitars! Radiohead has never grooved quite like they do on this relatively upbeat meter-shifting track. Yorke’s voice is almost radiant as he sings, “I might be wrong/I could have sworn/I saw a light coming on.” It might just be the closest we’ll ever get to hearing hope in his voice. While the conventionally aggressive “Knives Out” might have been gratifying a year ago, it seems strangely out of place on a record like Amnesiac. Even more odd, however, is its disfigured other half, “Dollars & Cents.” A mess of brilliance, the track’s tricky time signatures braid themselves beneath lush strings and layered vocal arrangements, leading to the soaring climax many had been looking for in Kid A.
But like its predecessor, not everything on Amnesiac works. The big band closing number, “Life in a Glass House,” featuring jazz trumpeter Humphrey Lyttleton, seems a bit out of place, and the instrumental “Hunting Bears” is unwieldy and inaccessible at best. Composed of an electric guitar loop and the sound of a mechanical ocean surging in and out, the brief interlude seems like it’s part of something much bigger. What that is, however, remains to be seen.
Yorke and his band refused to make music videos in support of Kid A, and any promotional clips that aired basically consisted of a few fuzzy seconds of animated nothingness. Likewise, the video for Amnesiac‘s first single, the typically dirgy “Pyramid Song,” is a computer-generated blue oasis that never once conjures an image of the band. So what are they doing right? Perhaps it’s the fact that it seems like Radiohead is doing something, period. In the midst of disposable teens and a renaissance of metal, Radiohead offers what seems like something important, whether you understand it or not. Amnesiac is, essentially, Kid B: overly ambitious, somewhat unattainable, and at once completely scornful and unfailingly devoted to the rock tradition. In other words, Amnesiac breaks all the rules and rewrites them exhaustively.