Monday, May 5, 2014

Radiohead - Amnesiac

This isn't a live review, first impressions sort of thing... this album is over 10 years old

Yeah, since I have more free time these days, I want to start reviewing older albums I like too. Expect even more hyperbolic and nonsensical praise. Basically my intention here is to try to explain what I like about these albums, what parts I find especially interesting, etc, in a way that other people might be able to enjoy it, too. It isn't really a definitive unbiased critique or anything. I'll go track by track and try to break down their appeal as thoroughly as I can. I'll also rate each track (on the classic ITG scale), mainly just to try to hype up the tracks I especially like. Pretty simple... Eventually I'd like to make a more in-depth post about my "philosophy" and goals in reviewing music, but it's basically this.

When I decided I would start doing these "classic" reviews, I agonized a bit about what album I wanted to start with... and then ended up choosing this just because I wanted to hear it. Amnesiac comes in a sort of weird place in the Radiohead discography. It came out only a year after Kid A, and I think a lot of people saw it as a sort of "extended B-sides" or something. It also gets a rough deal in terms of fans, as most of it's big supporters still ranked it below Kid A, it was still too weird for the OK Computer die-hards, etc, etc. It's got a bit of a middle-child syndrome, and yeah, honestly, I'd rank it below Kid A, OK Computer, In Rainbows... maybe even Hail to the Thief and The King of Limbs.

However, luckily for Amnesiac, there is no Radiohead album that wholly obsoletes another. Amnesiac, like the rest, captures a unique and compelling aesthetic. It has modes and stories of its own. And it has some really, really beautiful moments. Let's explore them!

Radiohead - Amnesiac
Album Review

I really love this cover (I really love all the Radiohead covers), I think I heard you can buy a replica of the book somewhere, and it has Thom Yorke art in it, or something. Probably pretty expensive by now. I just love the idea of the book as this mysterious artifact presented objectively against the black background, and I feel like the process of listening to the album is like looking through the book. It seems both very alien and distant, but also deeply personal and intimate, like reading someone else's secret diary. Maybe the title is like... you're the amnesiac, and you're reading your own secret diary, but it's someone else's... I dunno.

The album starts off with a distinctive focus on percussion and rhythm. We get three distinct drum parts - the addictive kettle drums, some distant bass hits, and then the full and close synth beats - all playing around with their contrasting rhythms for over 30 seconds before any melodic elements come in. But oh man, that first synth line. I think the difference between that opening synth and the one at the start of "Everything in its Right Place" does a great job summarizing the differences between the two albums. These sounds are so sorrowful, so breathy, so bluesy.

After years of waiting, nothing came...

Given the short period between this and Kid A, these lines have a pretty strange irony on the (admittedly pointless) metalevel. The song speaks to a sort of elusive fulfillment that the speaker, despite being a reasonable man, fails to achieve. The "waiting", I think is key - not after years of struggle, or failure, but just waiting. And then "looking in the wrong place"... it's the sort of agony of a life wasted, not in foolish pursuits or mistakes, but simple idleness. It's the most terrifying of all.

Thom's vocal parts burn through multiple modes of distortion, always matched by an intensifying corruption of the beats behind him. The crashing burn of crushed loops (like the sardines) that kicks in around 1:20 echoes all the way back to the guitar on "Creep", the same sort of jarring ugliness. And then the eerie-but-active synth pattern beginning around 1:50 juxtaposes a precise sophistication. Around 2:30 these two elements fuse even more together, the grungy drone and distinct synth spots, along with stuttered and slurred vocals that also belong to both camps.

The vocals seem somewhat sinister by the end of the song, as the "reasonable man" seems to lose his patience. The unheard critic he replies to is undeterred, and will haunt him for the rest of the album. This fantastic opener defines the modes of precise, jazzy rhythm and blurred distortion that serves as the foundation of much of the music while erecting the walls of surveillance, judgment, regret, and distant dream that guide the album thematically. Wow so uplifting!! What a fun summer jam!! **

Oh yeah, y'all know this one. I know you do. This is like Radiohead's "Moonlight Sonata" or something, I think. It's just so obviously and simply beautiful that it almost seems like a joke. Like, if you had a friend that didn't know anything about Radiohead, but they knew that they had some "slow" songs about things like "death" without things like "guitars", I think they'd picture something like this... it feels like this song just has to exist. It's the shining pyramid atop the structure I analogized at the end of the last song's description, lol.

I jumped in the river and what did I see?

This song itself is like a pyramid in so many ways. The time signature is probably the most famous, 4 bars of 3/4 followed by a bar of 4/4 replicating the 4 triangles and 1 square of a pyramid. Then you get into the lyrical meaning, which I think is pretty commonly understood to be based in Egyptian beliefs about death, "Book of Coming Forth by Day" and all that. Given that the pyramids were tombs of the great pharaohs, this all makes a lot of sense. Everything is presented through direct image, suggesting a speaker who is in fact dying during the song, and describing his visions at the end of life.

The satisfaction here, at the end of the life, serves a powerful counterpoint to the regret of the speaker in "Packt". Anticipating the sort of mindset of "well, even the supposedly immortal pharaohs of Egypt, who possessed relative wealth and power perhaps unmatched in history, eventually die", the song counters by showing the great happiness and achievement that actually awaits some people. The very fact that the word "pyramid" still suggests some meaning also gives a very tangible and undeniable significance to their lives. It's not really about the specific religious aspect or anything. It's just about the idea of there being some sort of satisfying, comforting, death. Some death that is worth living for.

And beyond all that is the simple beauty of the song. Without the song being immediately beautiful and haunting, the meaning would be pointless. There can be no comfort if it needs to be assessed and understood. Just like the pyramids - the aspect of sheer grandeur and perfection needed to be immediate and universal. And oh my god this song is beautiful, like I'm sure the pyramids were when they were first covered in shining white gold. The warmth and hesitation of the piano, the delicate power of Thom's voice, the mysterious and chilling strings and synths, and then oh man, when the drum kit comes in around the 2 minute mark... this is a "trick" I'm endlessly praising Matryoshka for, and this is still one of it's best applications... just the way a simple, clear, jazzy drum line can give such an enthralling energy to a song. It's probably one of my favorite things in music. This is definitely one of my favorite songs ever. *****

This is one of the strangest and most disliked songs in Radiohead's studio album discography. After "Pyramid Song" went almost wholly acoustic, all the neglected synths get piled up here. It feels very overwhelming and claustrophobic. Elements keep "popping out" unexpectedly, and almost every line has some unique set of effects on it. Lots of these effects seem to have settings cranked up to the 9-10 range when you typically hear them in the 5-6 range, maybe, if that makes sense. Like, the echoes echo more and the warbling warbles harder. There's no singing, almost no melody, and a confusing structure. It's really not so surprising that it gets such a hard time.

But there are trapdoors that you can't come back from

I'm not really going to try to defend any of that. This is a weird song and I feel like a lot more could have been done with it. But there's still a lot of stuff I like. Lyrically, it's pretty intriguing. It seems somewhat demonic, all these doors, all these invitations. For some reason it always reminds me of the lyrics to "My Wall" by Sunn O))), actually looking at those lyrics now I'm not sure why, but for some reason it did, some sort of sinister connotation. I think the song is about all the possibilities one has in life... having established on the first two tracks that you ought to do something or face regret, and that there's something that really is worth doing, this song now looks at what that something could be. The door metaphors all seem pretty clear to me, but I also like trying to match them up with the sort of auditory symbolism of all the weird synth effects and samples jumping around. I can't really describe any of them, which I think is a testament to how cool and weird they are, and I think some of them are really beautiful. And in another way I really do think they all "fit", even if sometimes it's the way in which they don't actually fit that reveals why they were included. S-

Now we get yet another shift, into a sort of... spaced out, dreamy jazz thing... that makes up the aesthetic base of a lot of the latter parts of the album. It's really hard to categorize emotionally. There's a sort of burning intensity that seems to be checked by a sort of composure, but then also breaks out, as it does at the end of the song. Lyrically, the song is just straight-up angry. It feels very political without imposing any sort of viewpoint or requiring any context. I mean, look at those lyrics... with a different sort of band this could easily be a protest anthem, the sort of thing that gets you arrested. 

Come on, if you think you can take us on

I think my favorite part of the song is the quiet little walking bass line that comes in around the 1 minute mark. The transition from the really ghostly ethereal "choir" sounds accompanying it before to this sort of earthy, "real" sound, anticipating the major shift that occurs about a minute later... it just shows like, ridiculous understanding of restraint in composition. Their ability to reign themselves in all the way to that huge movement, to even retreat a little, it's almost a "political" maneuver... I'm not sure if I can explain that very well.

And then the shift itself... I lied, it's definitely the shift itself that's my favorite part of the song. The first half's moody, muted vocals and easygoing guitar all suddenly at war and riding out... Again, the ol' drum kit trick anticipates it, but the slight variation where the drums come in just a few seconds before everything else kicks into gear, those few seconds have just the most delicious and addictive anticipation. And I absolutely love how the piano comes in full-force and isn't "spoiled" at all in the first part of the song. I think the ending of this has some of my favorite Yorke vocals, which means it's probably someone else's least favorite Yorke vocals... the power and energy he puts into those "ghost horses" lines is just chilling.

I think, in this song, you get the actual definitive response of the "reasonable man" from "Packt"... the confidence and ambition here is a world away from his sorrowful defensiveness. There's a feeling of something getting set free, of that wonderful opening yawn-inhale being let out as a whisper, then a yell. A declaration of war, and then an all-out attack by this one-song army. It's wonderfully cinematic. **

Oh man, this song is sick. I think this is one of Radiohead's most underrated songs. They seem to have a song every album where they just pull out all the stops, where they take all the ideas they're having around then and try to do something with all of them, at once... "Paranoid Android", "The National Anthem", "There, There", etc... and "I Might Be Wrong". There's just so much going on here... it has the electronic crunch, the grungy, bluesy guitar, a really sweet bass line, precise bleep-boop synths, jazzy drums, and sorrowful lyrics.

Let's go down the waterfall, think about the good times and never look back

Despite feeling so full and intense, there's also a great sense of something incomplete about this song, something left unsaid. The lyrics seem to be about some relationship, some sort of dialogue with a "I", "you" and a "let's", but it's so fragmented, you can't even be sure which stage of the development you're witnessing. It seems to me, simply, that the speaker is thinking about his current happiness, remembering that this happiness used to be unimaginable to him, and then beginning to worry that, just because unhappiness is currently unimaginable, he has been wrong before, and might be wrong now. And like, oh man... if that's what it's about, like, please, stop and think about that. That's really amazingly compellingly broken thinking. That is the thinking of a tragically diseased mind. Trying to think through or dismiss this corrupting and insidious logic creates the tension and absence that make this song so fascinating. It's the idea of singing about what you don't want to think about.

This sort of mindset also manifests itself in the structure of the song, which I think is basically my favorite sort of song structure. Many elements are built up somewhat linearly, the song becoming progressively more complex and intense. Then, when these are all taken to their "logical conclusion", like, when each element has gone through a sort of build/sustain/deflate "arc", which, because they are geniuses, is all very synchronized, the whole song drops away. This moment, which happens around 3:40... I have to hold my breath every time. And then, the song rebuilds itself, in a sort of abridged fashion, arriving from a new angle, but quickly reaching the same intensity of the climax of the previous song... I hope this is somewhat understandable, I sort of feel like trying to draw some sort of intensity/complexity over time graph to explain this structure that I love so much.

This isn't my overall favorite song on Amnesiac, but I think it's probably what I consider the "centerpiece" song. Everything just seems to come together here in one focused attack. It doesn't feel completely solid or easily digestible, but that's true for the entire album. It's a sad, fractured image, distant and near-forgotten, but uncannily familiar. Simply stunning. ***

6. Knives Out

The energy and aesthetic of "I Might Be Wrong" continues on in a more refined, simple form here. This is, I think, the peak of the "jazzy" influence on Amnesiac, which I keep throwing around without really defining it too well. There's a lot of elements on this album, usually the drumming, here basically everything, that remind me of a really specific sort of jazz, I don't know enough about jazz to really define it very well. It's just... the entire sound of this song. The really airy acoustics, the racing beat, the interplay of rhythms, the light tone on the drum and guitars... I guess the one element that doesn't fit is the vocals, which have the same sort of frail "all-bones" power that they do on "You and Whose Army?". In classic Radiohead form, the relationship between the conflict between rapid rhythmic parts and sustained vocal parts is super interesting.

I want you to know, he's not coming back

This song is also like "You and Whose Army?" in the lyrics, there's the same sort of political or social intensity and violence, the same sense of pent-up frustration, but again, without requiring any sort of specific context. There is, however, an ideology clearly expressed here, and you get the sense of a character-speaker that Thom fundamentally disagrees with but feels expresses a position worth examining. The brutal eugenics-speak here ("If you'd been a dog, they would have drowned you at birth", etc) gets more horrifying the more you consider it. I mean, is this song about cannibalism? Is it about cannibalism as political metaphor? It's so dark, so creepy... the same sort of unsettling insanity of "Climbing Up the Walls" is now made kinetic and active. You feel like the subject of the speaker's arguments might really be in danger here, and it resonates when listening to it.

And the idea of this ruthlessness all dressed up in the sophistication of the music itself seems really dark, too. It's another political-seeming idea that gains even more significance through the vagueness - it feels like it could apply to any number of institutions or organizations. This idea of great and brutal evil lurking behind civil-seeming organization is a key Radiohead occupation. Here, the speaker is trying to convince you for his own good: "I want you to know"... this is the sort of mental virus that nightmares are made of. *

7. Morning Bell/Amnesiac

An obvious question is always "what's better, this or the Kid A version? I dunno, I gotta give it to the Kid A one... Both serve a sort of similar role, though. They take the aesthetic and thematic qualities of the album and restructure them as a sort of "tonal break", like, I think these songs, more than having their own aesthetic or message, are about the space they create on the album itself. If you think about the change in tone between "Knives Out" and "Dollars and Cents", you start to see a perspective shift. Not that this song isn't interesting, too. It seems like a conclusion to "I Might Be Wrong", it's like, "I Definitely Was Wrong", the unhappiness has happened. The lyrics range from brutally real ("You can keep the furniture") to surreal ("Sleepy jack the fire drill") to sheer grotesque ("Cut the kids in half"), to serene ("Release me, release me").

Light another candle...

I used to think this lyric was "I oughta move to Canada"... I feel like I never actually believed it was, I just wanted it to be... it fits with the song, too. Here the sorrowful, almost "brass", tone way back from the first synths on "Packt" comes out even stronger. It runs parallel with the plodding guitar and chimes, it all feels very "real", like, I can picture a band playing this, which I think makes it even sadder. And it makes the contrast with the phone-esque beeps near the end even stranger.

This song is weird in how much it seems to gather from the other songs, but how dissimilar it is to all of them. The steady, slow beat is hugely different than the excited rhythms of "Packt" or "I Might Be Wrong", but is also very different than the hesitation in "Pyramid Song". There are other times when the beat seems to get absorbed into the more extended elements of the song, like the vocals. It all contributes to a very strange effect and I'm not really sure how. The effect itself is pretty remarkable, though. Just close your eyes and try to picture yourself drifting further upwards... S+

8. Dollars & Cents

Now we get something much more overt, something even more angry. This takes the same sort of energy as "Knives Out" and sort of restructures it... now, instead of a high intensity continuous attack, we have something much more slow burning and infectious. The energy of the song comes and goes in waves, spiking when he snarls "Quiet down" with more ferociousness than anything else on the album, but also regressing to the intimate feeling of a few friends having a "session" on the purely instrumental parts.

I can see out of here

This is a song that feels almost overwhelmingly complex but, the more you hear it, the more simple it seems. The guitar, bass, vocals, and wide array of percussion all sound a little weird but most of them are doing fairly simple, repeated things. There's all sorts of echoing and temporal pushing and pulling, which gets explored even further on "Like Spinning Plates". There's a sense that some parts are being pulled forward and some pulled backwards. Okay, maybe I'm making it sound complicated again... and it is a pretty complicated song, I guess, but what makes it different than something like "Knives Out" is that it's actually much more straightforward. This is the perspective change I was hinting at during the "Morning Bell" section... there's a transition between the devious sophistication of the former and the straightforward construction of the other. Like, think about the complicated 3-guitar interplay near the end of "Knives Out", where each guitar has a pretty normal guitar tone, but is playing a complex riff that gets all fuegy with the other parts, and compare that to the guitar on this, which is distorted and weird, but is doing something pretty simple.

This seems like a pretty meaningless distinction, but I think it's interesting to think of this with the thematic context of the lyrics. The explicitness of "We're the dollars and cents, and we'll crush your little soul" feels really good next to a (bizarre and unconventional, but conceptually and mechanically simple) string arrangement or snare rush. All of this, combined with Thom Yorke's no-holds-barred singing intensity really fleshes out this distinction. On either half of "Morning Bell", we have the structurally and even thematically similar songs, but each has a "strategy" - the former deceptive, the latter explicit - that makes it distinct. That's so cool, what a cool album. And man this is an intense song. The anger building up through the last verse is the sort of thing that gives people heart attacks. *

9. Hunting Bears

This is another weird one... I think people who are dismissive of Amnesiac think of this and "Pulk/Pull" first. I always liked it, though. It's short, which seems like a weird piece of praise for a song, but I think the length really adds to how haunting and intense it is. And it hits like three of my musical fetishes in really strong ways - wind sounds, the sounds of scraping over a plucked string, and tones that sit on one note for a long time and then start moving in a much quicker pattern. So yeah, I like it. I feel like most of the criticism feels that it's "pointless", which always strikes me as a really weird complaint against music. S+

10. Like Spinning Plates

Oh man, I love the transition between this and "Hunting Bears"... Like, I think the one overwhelming thought the end of "Hunting Bears" should give you is "what could come next?", and I don't think anyone, no matter how many times they've heard it, can prepare themselves for the sound at the start of "Like Spinning Plates". It's the backwards version of "I Will"... but "I Will" came later, so is it the backwards version? But everything here is just so obviously backwards, like, those "vacuum" chords and that rustling sound that really is beyond description, they seem to have the very essence of backwardsness in them. So much so that when even really "pure" sounds like the piano around 50 seconds or the "choral light" around 1:30 feel like they could be backwards too, somehow. And then Thom Yorke gets all Twin Peaks on us and the orientation is lost for good.

A delicate balance...

I'm always conflicted when I hear this, because it's a really incredible song, but I always just want to hear the live version as soon as I think of it. It's kinda bad, 'cause the live version is so much more straightforward, whereas this one, as it tangles and untangles temporal issues, seems to be operating on like, entirely new dimensions of song construction. Okay, that sounds stupid and hyperbolic... but do you ever get the sense, listening to this song, that you're hearing things out of order? Like some sort of auditory illusion... like those scales that, when played with the right synchronization, sound like they're always getting higher and higher? Like, does this song contain some sort of trick where, by the time you get to the clearly-delivered titular line, you're so used to hearing things backwards that it somehow becomes backwards in your mind?

I don't know. And then the lyrics are plenty bizarre too... references to "pretty speeches" seem weird given the range of political discussion covered on this album - not hypocritical, or conflicting, or supporting, but just weird. Is this the perspective of the original speaker on "Packt", who, finally finding some ambition, has found every door disorienting or closed, and is now trapped, feeling like "spinning plates", moving but stationary? And the "muddy river", echoing the river of "Pyramid Song"... what's the connection? There seems to be a certain sense of failure, of confusion and futility here. And you get the sense of many of the types of experimentation approached through the album accumulating and combining to this final... temporal/spacial slurry.

Disorientation is a hard emotion to express, as the very emotion itself is often disquieting enough that articulation is impossible. Telling someone you're confused is already a statement that requires some lack of confusion. Do you get what I mean? Even this meta-level is hard to express. And yet, sometimes songs nail it, they nail the feeling of being so baffled that you can't even say it. This is definitely one of them. There is a conspiracy theory-level of mystery here, and the only clue is this warped, obscured, entangled song. That's so wonderful. ***

11. Life in a Glasshouse

Oh man, can you just listen to the opening of this song? Like five hundred times? Those synths are just dripping with "Spinning Plate"-type mystery, and then the way they peel back and reveal, not just a totally regular sounding piano, but actual brass?! After hinting at it through synth tones and suggesting accompaniment, Radiohead finally pulls out a little jazz band to noodle their way through what ends up being one of the album's more straightforward tracks. Not that "straightforward" is an insult by any stretch, though. The relatively explicit lyrics, memorable melodies, and driving structure make this an absolute grand finale.

That's a strange mistake to make...

All of the political dissension and ambition, personal regret and strife, all these conflicts, unite in the simple and retrospectively horrific idea that, after all, they're all public. That there's always a higher level of surveillance that understands your plans and struggles and operates with that knowledge, i.e., using you. It sounds paranoid until it becomes obvious. The very foundations of society are based on the understanding that people will behave in certain ways. There's no secret about that.

But, if there's things you want to do, or say or think, outside of those prescribed bounds... you have a problem, I guess. I don't think it's ever a problem I personally have encountered. Even when I broke the law, it was always in ways that could and already had been accounted for, in predictable ways. So I'm kinda distant from this mindset... it's a problem I face sometimes when thinking about Radiohead lyrics... but I think I can sort of understand it if I just picture a much more dystopian, totalitarian world, and really try to come to grips with the horror I'd feel under those circumstances (actually, I'd probably be the type to just fall in line, but anyways...), the constraints.

As they have before, the ideologies of the album get muddled, and we're left with the haunting sense that there's some problems that transcend one's personal ambitions or beliefs, problems that can be applied to any situation. The speaker of this song feels like it could be any of the previous ones (except maybe that of "Pyramid Song"), it feels like any of them could have this fear. There's a certain futility that implies, one that seems like it could regress all the way to the idleness of "Packt", and the "listener" seems basically omnipresent and invincible - this isn't any sort of "call to action" there. In the end, is this simply a pessimistic album, then? One where, even if the system is overthrown, or the relationship patched, or the ambition fulfilled, there will always be a higher listener, some system that encapsulates and renders that accomplishment moot? Is there actually no path to the death in "Pyramid Song"?

It certainly seems so, in the album's sorrowful final moments, lines that carry a terrible sadness that makes everything else thus far seem restrained. Thom's repeated "Only, only, only..." and the intense runs all over the sax and trumpet - I'm reminded of the end of the Coppola movie The Conversation for a whole list of reasons - all sound like just a total giving up of hope. It's beautiful and tragic. ***

There was nothing to fear, and nothing to doubt

Wow, that was a lot of words. I'm thinking probably almost no one will read all of them. That's OK. I think my intent with these is that someone who hasn't heard the album will think "wow, he wrote a lot of words about it, maybe I'll check it out", and someone who likes the album can look through and see if I liked the same things on it that they did. That sort of thing.

Amnesiac has a hard time, coming only a year after probably the most acclaimed album of the 21st century. People think of it as Kid A b-sides, I think Kid B was a pretty common nickname. They're hesitant to think of it as an album, and most people pluck out a few tracks - actually, usually just "Pyramid Song" - and stop thinking about it. I think probably the best way to approach this album would be to actually give yourself amnesia, and know nothing about Kid A, and then go into it. Then I think you'd notice how the album is actually varied but cohesive instead of sporadic. Thematically, it feels very whole to me. It seems to look at the possible ambitions one can choose in life and the ultimate futility of each. It exposes ruthless parts of society to underline just how inescapable the pointless crudeness of life is. It's, uh, kind of a downer, and not really my personal philosophy by any stretch, but it's there, and it's very interesting.

Musically, I feel this album takes a lot of the experimentation they were doing on Kid A and tries to bring it back as more of an element in traditional genres, rather than a genre of its own. You get things like sample distortion and crunching and stuff being used alongside more traditional piano and drum driven jazz. Ideas in electronic music are being distilled down to a form where they can be used as instruments instead of entire sounds unto themselves. There's a real sense of exploration here. At the same time, they also saw an opportunity to record some more traditional songs that would have been way out of place on Kid A... most notably, "Pyramid Song", which I think few would dispute is in their overall top 5. Wait, maybe a lot of people would... there's a lot of very divisive opinions among Radiohead fans, everyone has their personal favorites.

And that, too, is a real testament to the quality of the band. Not only do albums not obsolete each other, but every song is unique enough to be someone's favorite. I'm sure there's people out there for whom the vague paranoia and warnings of Amnesiac resonates very deeply and personally. I'm sure they love this album even more than I do. That's wonderful. Me, personally, I just can't get enough of deep, warm, piano chords alongside a drum kit.

I think I'm going to also give album scores for these "classic reviews" (which you prolly shouldn't expect too frequently 'cause wow this one took awhile lol), again, using the ITG scale and mainly existing for hype... like, just so I can indicate that I like one album more than another. This one gets ***.

That's all for now.

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