“After years of waiting/ nothing came”
These are the first confusing words I heard by Thom Yorke circa 2001 from “Packt Like Sardines in a Tin Box” on the follow-up to my favorite Radiohead album, 2000’s Kid A. I loved that album; it came out during my first year living in New Orleans, and my neighbors, friends and I would sit up all night long listening to it, discussing it and analyzing it while drinking and getting high. Kid A always equates to a year of happiness and freedom.
In contrast, Amnesiac reflects a numbed feeling, expressing emotions of confusion, anger and doubt while questioning our lives, our future and present unwrapped in a state of fear and uncertainty, which would come to a climax months later on September 11. Just listen to the lyrics from “Packt”: “As your life flashed before your eyes, you realize/ I’m a reasonable man…get off my case, get off my case.”
Yorke spoke of the recording sessions for Kid A that ultimately became Amnesiac: “It goes off in two ways. One is like very broken machinery (Kid A). The other is really fat and dark (Amnesiac). I played one of the songs to Björk and she said it sounded like I’d just seen something really frightening, then gone and written about it. It’s sort of bearing witness to things.”
This is not an uplifting album at all, not that Radiohead ever wrote shiny happy lyrics. But to hear Amnesiac is to hear the soundtrack to a lost generation living in 2001. Thom Yorke has described Amnesiac as being “the sound of what it feels like to be standing in the fire.” Just listen to lyrics like “Jumped in the river, what did I see?” on “Pyramid Song” which, to me, has the vibe of a funeral procession. Listen to the piano keys that Thom plays like a loop over and over again as he sings, “All my lovers were there with me/ all my past and futures/ and we all went to heaven in a little row boat.“
The next song, “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” sounds like what Radiohead imagines what life in a coffin would be like: “There are doors that let you in and out but never exit.“ It’s as if Yorke is singing a warning to those deeply lost and thinking of breaking through this mortal coil. The sound of the afterlife brought to life by Radiohead as Thom sings, “there are trap doors that you can’t come back from.” The drums and beats actually sound like they are beating down on a sardine can, very metallic and cold mirroring the coldness of Thom’s lyrics.
“You and Whose Army?” is one of the finest songs that Radiohead played live when I saw them in New Orleans. I could tell that Thom loves playing that song, as he sat at the piano singing the songs, twirling his fingers in the air, inspiring us to get up and stand up for our rights. This is a call to arms song. It’s the same song that Thom loves to dedicate to George Bush. One of the best songs of the album, it’s one of my favorite from the Radiohead canon and reflects the turning point of Amnesiac. You could say that this is where the band wakes up, lights the spark for the revolutionary promises that they continued in the songs and sounds of Hail to the Thief.
“I Might be Wrong” is next and the song closest to the Kid A vibe that I loved so much, reminding me of the funky beats of “Idioteque.” “There was no future left at all/ I used to think/ Start again, begin, again.” The lyrics tie in the emotions that Thom sang about at the beginning of the record with the positive spark from “You and Who’s Army.” The death theme comes back stronger than ever in “Knives Out.” I do love the first line, “He’s not coming back.” But then it turns into a cannibalistic paradise of murder and loss that only Thom and Radiohead can bring to life. This disturbing yet catchy song is the most traditional sounding of all on Amnesiac and is also a live favorite.
“Morning Bell” is the only song that truly links Kid A to Amnesiac. I imagine that if Thom and the band had followed their original plan by releasing both records together as one double album, a-la The Beatles’ White Album, this song would be Radiohead’s reprise or slight return, if you will. Speaking of The Fab Four, Thom name-checks The Beatles song “Yer Blues” on “Dollars and Cents,” the song’s themes dealing with the effect that currency has on our lives. Money is as a weapon used to “crack (y)our little souls.” As you may recall, after 9/11 Bush told us to go spend money. In other words, get yourself into debt and become slave to credit companies.
“While you make pretty speeches/ I’m being cut to shreds“ is a reference to all the words spoken by both Bush and Tony Blair. “And this just feels like spinning plates/ I’m living in cloud cuckoo land.“ Like Dylan, Morrison, Lennon and McCartney before him, Yorke captures our life in chaos perfectly. When someone plays Amnesiac in the future and hears those lyrics, they will realize that Radiohead perfectly bring to life the experience of being alive during one of the most turbulent times in our world’s existence.
Amnesiac doesn’t end with a bang but more with simply vivid song evocating the sound of a New Orleans funeral song. Whenever I hear “Life in a Glasshouse” it always brings me back to the 504. It sounds like a Deep Southern procession but listen closely as Yorke foreshadows the loss of our freedoms and rights when he sings, “Well of course I’d like to sit around and chat, only, there’s someone listening.” I hear this song as a death to our personal liberties. Thom brilliantly uses images of a friend being blinded by lies as she puts on a smile, life in a glasshouse. Thom wants us to shatter the glasshouse with truth, but with fear of retribution, his friend is afraid of speaking up because she fears that someone is listening. This is a beautiful yet haunting song that leaves us pondering not only the future of our favorite band, but also the current state of our very own lives.
For these reasons, to me, Amnesiac remains the most underrated album in Radiohead’s history. It was the one album that I had the hardest time listening to. I now realize that Thom was speaking the truth about the beginning of a new world of mistrust, deceit, apprehension and disillusionment with the world we were living in at that confusing time. This is a brilliant album and with the release of In Rainbows, besides Hail to the Thief, Amnesiac is the one that I keep coming back to. There’s beauty here, loss also lives within the scared sounds of Amnesiac. Don’t be afraid, this album is like looking in the mirror and getting lost in the sound and reflections of a misplaced treasure filled with songs from a time of chaos, uncertainty and doubt.
Björk – Vespertine
Autechre – Tri Repitae++
The Beta Band – The Three E.P.s
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