Life After ‘Kid A’
Radiohead’s Haunting New Release, ‘Amnesiac’By Sandra Chung
Everyone’s favorite five-piece band from Oxford continues pioneering in modern musical art with a variety of innovative sounds and introspective lyrics on Amnesiac. Lead vocalist Thom Yorke’s keyboard taps atmospheric chord sequences, while Jonny Greenwood rewires his guitar and plays around with the synthesizer to create original sounds. Lanky eye-candy Ed O’Brien backs up Yorke’s vocals with his subdued pipes and a wry rhythm guitar. Bassist Colin Greenwood and drummer Phil Selway strum and drum with musical finesse.
Many of the acoustic and electronic sounds have improvised or irregular rhythms. The songs themselves are uniquely structured, often lacking conventional harmony and melody lines. Though Kid A and Amnesiac were recorded at the same time and share the same moody, experimental flavor, each album has a distinct character. Kid A embraces futuristic and political ideas; Amnesiac is loaded with personal, aching images of human imperfections and secret dreams. Casual Radiohead fans beware; this is heavy stuff.
“Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box” is a strange, multi-layered study in claustrophobia and a prime example of the weirdness of recent Radiohead. Vowels plucked from the title leave the consonant sounds overlapping each other like crowded fish. The piece describes a person who is all too aware of the oppressive confines of reality: “After years of waiting nothing came/As your life flashed before your eyes/You realize/I’m a reasonable man/Get off, get off, get off my case.” Greenwood’s rewired guitar shrieks faintly in the background. Synthesized drums, a tin can drum, and various unidentifiable electronic sounds either sustain long, smeared notes or ricochet off each other in a complex mixture of syncopated and non-syncopated rhythms similar to Caribbean oil drum music. Three voices accompany Yorke’s soft vocals -- one an echo of his own voice, another a speaking woman, and the last a distorted male voice.
Yorke speaks of peaceful drowning in the “Pyramid Song,” the album’s slowest, simplest track, which is best described as musical water. Off-beat piano chords begin their upwards climb in half-steps and increase their jumps to whole steps, then fall in half-steps, evoking the rhythmic heaving of waves. Each line of Yorke’s lead vocals begins with one of several patterns of ascending and descending pitches, echoing the wave motif.
In addition to claustrophobia and drowning, other tracks contribute to the album’s eerie feel with ghost and witchcraft themes. Radiohead returns to the world of the living with the lush “Dollars and Cents,” which comments on cutthroat capitalism and highlights Selway’s excellent drum work.
The album version of “I Might Be Wrong” is the logical choice for a radio single. Standard electronic and bass guitar lines establish a recognizable rock sound. Aspects that stand out are Yorke’s haunting voice, layers of synthesized bass and percussion, and distorted electronic whines. The most listener-friendly song, however, is “Life In a Glasshouse,” which pleasantly surprises with a no-nonsense jazz band. The mixture of piano, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, drums, and Yorke’s voice is what the blues would be like had they been invented in a London lounge.
The other U.S.-released Radiohead albums have a distinct unity to their tracks. In contrast, the pieces on Amnesiac seem to be pages ripped randomly from the threadbare diary of a deeply introverted man. The CD book consists of 14 pages of tortured sketches and scribbled snatches of lyrics superimposed over each other in ghostly collages with as much morose complexity as the songs on the album. Radiohead taps a vast realm of cynical creativity for the waves of indecipherable percussive and electronic sound that make this album unlike any you’ve ever heard.
Radiohead plays Suffolk Downs on August 14.