I don’t know what’s wrong with Radiohead.
For a while there, they seemed flawless. Their first three albums are a perfect model of ascendancy, each improving on its predecessor at a breathtaking rate. Their average debut Pablo Honey offered the barest hint of the sweeping melodicism of The Bends, which in turn couldn’t have prepared anyone for the genius of OK Computer. Plus, they attained major-label acceptance and great standing with the critics. Like many artistic wunderkinds when they hit this stage of their careers, the only people who could stop Radiohead’s ascent were the members of Radiohead themselves.
And so they did.
It’s taken me a long time to like Kid A, the band’s fourth effort, and I’m still not sure I do like it. They took their creepy soundscapes just a step too far into stratospheric meandering, and the album sounds like a weak collection of b-side experiments strung together. It’s quite cohesive in its tone and style, but it still constitutes an appalling lack of effort on the compositional side. Stacked next to OK Computer, it’s a deeply painful disappointment.
I can’t say that I’m as disappointed in Amnesiac, Radiohead’s just-released fifth album, but that’s simply because its predecessor didn’t leave me with the same level of expectation. Recorded at the same time as Kid A, this new one is another impeccably produced slab of wispy, tuneless slop that evaporates before your ears.
I’ve listened to Amnesiac four times now. After the first go-round, I barely restrained the urge to tear the disc from my stereo, hurl it to the ground and step on it. After the fourth, I’m still not convinced that I shouldn’t have followed through on my impulse. Amnesiac is maddening in its inconsistency, its simplicity and its depressingly marginal quality. The only reason I keep looking to this disc (and to its predecessor) for hidden qualities that obviously aren’t there is that I believe it’s impossible to make the best album of the past 20 years by accident.
The true accomplishment of OK Computer was its creation of otherworldly atmospheres wrapped around intelligent, moving melodies. A song like “Subterranean Homesick Alien” lives up to the care and time put into its sonic architecture. A song like “Paranoid Android” or “Karma Police” has sections and movements and a deep sense of musicianship lying beneath its multicolored palette. OK Computer synthesized studio wizardry and musical artistry like few records before it, and like none since. If you’re looking for a distorted-reflection equivalent to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, well, there it is in all its shimmering dystopian glory.
Kid A and Amnesiac were rumored to have been conceived as a double album, and the stylistic similarities are certainly abundant. The tragedy of these two albums is that you could edit roughly half the tracks out and make a decent single disc out of the remainder. The real tragedy is that the best song on that resultant single disc wouldn’t even be the equal of the worst song on OK Computer. The atmospheres are all here in spades, but the songs are missing.
Amnesiac actually starts strong, which may lead to false hope for the rest of the record. “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box” (trust me, there are no typos there) is very nearly the demo version of “Everything In Its Right Place” from Kid A. It’s based around pitter-patter electronic drums and electric piano, like so much of Kid A, but it has an instantly memorable melody. “Pyramid Song,” inexplicably the first single, sounds like a series of false starts at first until the drums kick in, cementing the piano rhythm. The tune is buoyed aloft by the string section and Thom Yorke’s vocal, in one of the few cases here that makes good use of him.
The paradox of Thom Yorke is this: when he has a melody to wrap himself around, he’s one of the best, most powerful singers working today. The man can sing the paint off a battleship. Unfortunately, when he’s given nothing to work with and must meander about melodically, he’s terribly annoying. He whines, he wails, he caterwauls, and you sometimes find yourself wishing he’d stumble across a tune or just shut up. Yorke’s not the only one given no grounding here. If you’ve ever heard this band act as one to attack a song, you’ll come away from Amnesiac wondering how they could release something in which they never once come fully together.
Like Kid A, Amnesiac contains its share of throwaway tracks. When it comes to repetitive clanging like “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” or tuneless interludes like “Hunting Bears,” this band needs to ask itself what purpose would be served including them on their record. Likewise “Morning Bell/Amnesiac,” a lethargic reprise of Kid A’s “Morning Bell” that’s here for no apparent thematic reason. Considering how much the rest of the disc sounds like filler, that these three stand out is impressive.
Another striking thing about Amnesiac is how defensive it is. Songs like “You and Whose Army” and “Knives Out” seem reflexive, even reactionary. Yorke intones the phrase “I’m a reasonable man, get off my case” repeatedly in “Packt Like Sardines…,” and one can’t help but wonder at whom he’s lashing out. It can’t be the critics, because as usual, they’re falling all over themselves to praise this thing. As was the case with Kid A, the emperor is still running about stark raving naked, and Rolling Stone is complimenting his designer suit.
What’s undeniably depressing about an album like Amnesiac is that Radiohead is a far better band than this. I hope this is just a phase that they’ll snap out of soon. Both Kid A and Amnesiac are ear candy, sonic wallpaper that never gets under your skin because it has no substance. There’s a mild irony in the title they’ve chosen for such a forgettable record, but irony certainly isn’t enough to excuse this slump. Even more disconcerting is that Yorke has said in interviews that the band is quite proud of this disc. If that’s true, then they may truly have lost it, and that would be a shame.
Anyway, I’m working on a big, huge, gigantic column for next time that plays catch-up on just about everything I’ve gotten recently. As a bit of a preview, though, I present my half-year Top 10 List below. This is a silly experiment that will bear no resemblance to the final list at the end of the year, I hope. If I had to rank the top 10 discs now, though, this is what they would be:
#10. The 77s, A Golden Field of Radioactive Crows.
#9. The Black Crowes, Lions.
#8. Tool, Lateralus.
#7. Jonatha Brooke, Steady Pull.
#6. Glen Phillips, Abulum.
#5. Mark Eitzel, The Invisible Man.
#4. Ani DiFranco, Revelling/Reckoning.
#3. Rufus Wainwright, Poses.
#2. R.E.M., Reveal.
#1. Duncan Sheik, Phantom Moon.
Don’t read too much into this list, because if the second half of the year is as good as the first half has been, it will change. So next time, Travis, Rufus Wainwright, the 77s, Starflyer 59 and whatever else I find lying about unreviewed.
See you in line Tuesday morning.