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Classic Reviews: Radiohead, ‘Amnesiac’

SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: June 04, 2001
Label: Capitol

This review originally ran in the July 2001 issue of SPIN. In honor of the release of Radiohead’s ninth album, A Moon Shaped Pool, we’ve republished this piece here.

Where should Radiohead sit? There’s only room for so many huge groups at any one time, so they must be taking somebody’s place. Or are they? U2, aside from not going away, are ballsy and Big Picture; R.E.M. had the dirty windshields and androgynous boss but hid actual songs under the not-actual words; and the oft-invoked Pink Floyd, despite similar me-against-the-Machine whinging, unabashedly provided arena-rock pleasures. Radiohead are nothing if not abashed. So what do they sell? Not majestic beauty (Sigur Rós do that better), or majestic dread (Godspeed You Black Oak Arkansas! bring that noise), and certainly not physical rock action (Beyoncé Knowles, High on Fire, and Ludacris all beat them). Then what are they good at? Pretty? Definitely, but it’s more than that. Comfort, which means they neither displace nor extend anybody’s legacy. Radiohead are turning down the bed in your head, switching off the lights, and giving you the chance to work it all out.

Thom Yorke says it himself in Amnesiac‘s “Dollars & Cents”: “Why don’t you quiet down?” Panicky folks everywhere identify with Yorke’s lullaby to himself, that sonorous breeze going forever through his nose. He makes a sound to make it all right and throws in words to give the sound something to hold on to. The fact that his hopelessly vague lyrics don’t even qualify as good collage makes content the listener’s problem. But Radiohead don’t sell insight or a worldview; Kid A and now, eight months later, Amnesiac are lullabies for the compressed present — the time and space of a nervous car trip. They’re just trying to get home in one piece, life is but a dream. Fa fa fa. Blip blip.

If the aesthetic is fuzzy, the marketing has been fleet and mutable. Radiohead drive quickly to market, yet no one’s at the wheel! They tour! But they won’t send out advances to the press! But they encourage kids to listen to the shows on Napster! They seem friendly! But Yorke speaks in riddles! They’re old-fashioned, woodshedding Big Pink-in’ rockers! No, they’re cyber-happy, Pro Toolin’ future freaks! The new record is going to be like OK Computer! Maybe not!

Maybe not. How about Kid B? Check the sequencing, same as last year’s: frosty electro track with annoying catchphrase followed by glitches and warps, saved in the middle by catchy bits, finished with symphonic slide home. With the exception of “I Might Be Wrong,” a delicious, interlocking banger with modest disco roofing and honest-to-goodness chord changes, and “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors,” a bumping filterfest of drums, the tempo circle here is unbroken. Call ’em slow jams, call ’em ballads — hell, call ’em salads.

The murmuring leadoff track, “Packt Like Sardines in a Crusd Tin Box,” could be a kiss-off to every patient fan: “After years of waiting / Nothing came / I’m a reasonable man / Get off my case, get off my case [ad infinitum].” Stop sweatin’ the T-Boogie! And, for that matter, stop sweating altogether! “Pyramid Song” is stoned Elton John produced by David Axelrod and features many iterations of the word nothing. (When Yorke finds a word he likes, he lets you know, lets you know.) And this is how Amnesiac goes, or doesn’t: Resonant, dusty somethings, not much on their own, line up and aggregate into something fluid and sweetly steady. “Amnesiac/Morning Bell” is a slippery version of Thom in his Throes, bells a-ringing through the good swoon, and “Like Spinning Plates” finds Radiohead’s keyboards finally sounding as expressive as their guitars used to.

But you’ve always got Yorke in the mix, doggedly saying what little he has to say, language be damned. (The closing song is actually about people who live in glass houses. I am not making this up.) He remains unknowable, yet he manages to reassure us, popping out for a few minutes to intone dysfunctionally, then receding to let the technocrats take over…

Hold the line. Thom Yorke is George W. Bush.

Both mollify their fans by mumbling endless variations on “I don’t know.” Both lend trifles weight by draaaawwwing theeemm ouuutt. Both have put up baffling numbers.

Okay, enough of that. I enjoy this record a lot more than the arsenic in my drinking water or the annoying booger of hype stuck to this band’s forehead. Fact is, Radiohead’s records work, often despite Sir Thom’s mooning about, sometimes because of Sir Thom’s commitment to dreamy goo. When you get into the 16-year-old head-space of a true Moody Gus, it’s hard to get out. (Especially if you’re 32.) Kid A and Amnesiac, even more so, honor that feeling formally, abandoning verse-chorus-verse motion to let the tracks just roll out, like bolts of cloth, detail accruing like fuzz on a sweater. Nothing sudden, nothing jarring — just work it out.