Amnesiac cemented Radiohead’s new direction: one that was highly experimental and forward-looking.
Borne from the same recording session Amnesiac would have been a second disc of a double-album set had they gone that direction. Instead, they opted to release Amnesiac eight months later after Kid A.
Amnesiac cemented Radiohead’s new direction: one that was highly experimental and forward-looking. Instead of clinging to the successes of OK Computer and the rock genre they gestated from, they emerged from this recording-session chrysalis in a completely different form. Ever since, they’ve been known for their use of everything from rock instruments to electronics—the boundaries have always been blurry since.
Amnesiac’s take on this is sheer soundscape. From the beginning of the album with “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box,” Radiohead craft music out of cut-up bits of sound-nonsense. Everything is warped and altered to the maximum degree, making the individual component unrecognizable. Yet it works. “Like Spinning Plates” shares this feeling with a back-masked journey into a wonderful David-Lynchian dream. Lush, pretty, experimental, thoughtful. Glinty electronic sounds with an uneasy, jittery percussive/melodic loop meld into each other until harmonic electronics introduce reversed lyrics. This song has the delicate feeling of its title—a tad bit awkward, but incredibly beautiful to watch.
Throughout the album, their attention to detail, multiple parts, the eerie implementation of electronics blur the line between what was previously considered musical instrumentation and things-that-process-data. Drum machines parallel or augment Phil Selway’s ride-heavy playing; banks of electronics crowd each other, but manage to stay out of one another’s way at the same time.
Jazz has always been experimental and heavy on music theory, with a healthy bit of improvisation. It seems that they built on both the spirit and genre of jazz, taking it to a 2.0 degree. Mixing some jazz instrumentation and chord structures with electronics became the foundation for a songs like “You and Whose Army,” “Dollars and Cents” and “Life in a Glass House,” which is the most overt of the three.
“You and Whose Army” is a tense reinterpretation of jazz with gospel-like backing harmonies and Yorke’s vulnerable yet literally challenging vocals (“Come on come on/
Holy Roman empire/ Come on if you think/ Come on if you think/ You can take us on”). The mashup is so incredibly nuanced and well executed, the finished product sounds less like the individual pieces and more like something entirely different. As the piano soars, drums, electronics, backing vocals and harmonies make it sound like Radiohead is storming the gates of Valhalla on pillow-white horses with spears and chariots.
“Dollars & Cents” is a quirky, blissful, spaced out jam with jazzy guitars, Bowie-like effects and more sing-along lyrics. But these reveal Radiohead’s more, shall we say, political side: “We are the dollars and cents and the pounds and pence/ Quiet down)/ And the mark and the yen and yeah/ We’re gonna crack your little souls/ Why don’t you quiet down?”
Jerky drums play a more prominent role than the guitar, which is urgent and takes on the role of the drums keeping the tempo with a constant ride cymbal. The busy bassline is buried under layers of analogue keyboards and warbling noises. And the song builds in intensity, then gets quieter and builds back up. But unlike with the loud-quiet aesthetic of shoegaze bands, it’s a much more fluid dynamic—slowly building and slowly descending. It’s a roller coaster of feeling, but it’s a kid’s roller coaster; easy and not too challenging. “Life in a Glass House” employs glassy, metallic soundscapes of affected guitar with jazz overtones. Clarinets, trombone and trumpet putter around in the background over rhythmic piano. In fact, this is not actually Radiohead at all, but instead Thom Yorke singing over The Humphrey Lyttelton Band, due to Radiohead’s admission that they can’t play full-on jazz.
Besides the jazz influence, Radiohead reached into the classical bin for a few songs as well. “Pyramid Song” featured a grand piano and a string section; the soundscapes are decidedly avant-garde, though with a lot of portamento between notes. “Morning Bell/Amnesiac” is the Amnesiac version of the Kid A song with the same name. This one is both stripped down and fleshed out; much floatier with many more noises than the original, which was more reminiscent of their rock-and-roll days. Tambourine and jingle bells faintly and distantly hold a tempo while keyboards and possibly malleted bells lumber and float.
The seemingly nonsensical overtones of Kid A gave way to a bit more polished and cohesive sound in Amnesiac—it has a bit more “glue” than Kid A. Part of this was because these songs were produced in the more conventional manner of having all the band members together instead of a couple of guys manipulating bits in their basements all alone.
Although the songs are experimental, they’re far from chaotic. Although they diverged from the tried-and-true rock-and-roll structures of their previous albums, the pop sensibilities of good songwriting were not lost on this album. Two particularly great examples shine in this realm: the aforementioned “Dollars and Cents” as well as “Knives Out,” a lyrically unlikely candidate for anything pop given its cannibalistic overtone. Catchy, singable and incredibly pleasing, the complexity of the rhythms and soundscapes are completely masked by the strong, foot-tapping easiness. This sort of magic sums up Radiohead’s brilliance: they make difficult seem easy. According to Guitarist Ed O’Brien’s diary, this song took an incredible 373 days to complete. And like the supposedly Smith’s-inspired guitar, the lyrics are equally dark over the top of happy music. A meandering, reverbed clean channel guitar playfully noodles over the top of thrumming bass and an acoustic guitar panned to the right ear. It is so incredibly accessible but if you listen closely, you can get lost in a hazy mood.
For trying to divest themselves of being popular, they supremely failed at this: Amnesiac debuted number two at the US Billboard charts and number one in the UK; much of the press at the time rated it in the top of their charts—the press had time to warm up to this new landscape coming off the heels of Kid A. And it was all well-deserved too because at the time no one was putting out this hodgepodge of electronic, jazz, classical, rock music, especially in a cohesive way that these five guys consistently seem to be able to deliver.