Wrestling with reassessment of Radiohead’s Amnesiac

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More than a couple of people have asked me if I plan on writing a response to Pitchfork’s Top 500 singles of the decade list, which concluded last Friday.  I do…but not, you know, until the ACTUAL end of the decade. There’s something a bit silly to me about launching a decade-in-review feature when there’s still almost one 25th of the aughts still to go, but hey, to each their own. But as for responding, I don’t know how I could possibly do so in any kind of constructive sense without falling into the trap of spoiling my own list (which you can expect around late November, early Decemberish).

Lists aside, though, it’s clear that Pitchfork is putting a good deal of work into their retrospective features that are rolling out in the next month, which makes sense. As the definitive tastemaker behind one of the decade’s strongest cultural movements, Pitchfork has a pretty a vested interest in being first out of the gate in structuring their own narrative, even going so far as to call their coverage “P2K” – a vain moniker if it didn’t feel somewhat warranted. The first such piece – Eric Harvey’s “Social History of the MP3” – reads like a more eloquent and comprehensive expression of many of the thoughts that have filtered through this blog over the past three years, and it’s an analysis I want to return to at some point.

But alongside all the formal “P2K” coverage, Pitchfork did something else interesting this week: three re-reviews of Radiohead’s three Capitol Records albums from this decade, timed with the release of new deluxe editions that add live tracks and b-sides. The Kid A review, by Rob Mitchum, predictably and reasonably gives the album a perfect 10 and sets the groundwork for if (when?) Pitchfork names it their “album of the decade” next month. It also builds a cultural framework around the record that’s eerily similar to my own take from a couple of years back. Also predictably, Joe Tangari’s assessment of Hail to the Thiefknocks the record down a slight peg, which I don’t take issue with – the record’s rhythm-heavy focus reflects the headspace of the band at the time (see also Yorke’s The Eraser and Jonny Greenwood’s Bodysong soundtrack) but aside from its standout tracks it lacks the melodic core of the band at their best and it hasn’t aged all that well.

But the most interesting of the three reassessments is Editor-in-Chief Scott Plagenhoef’s attempt to reclaim Amnesiac from its “Kid B” status and place it not only alongside the band’s best work, but as a record that actually reflects the decade that followed better than its more-heralded predecessor. It’s a valiant effort, and I completely understand where it’s coming from. But as someone who was slightly disappointed by the record and who has often adopted the “Kid B” moniker to describe it, I’m not sure I buy it.

The jist of Plagenhoef’s argument is that the Amnesiac’s mixed reception is more the fault of the cultural context in which the record was released than the music itself. He goes through a whole series of excuses and blames – that it further alienated “a generation raised on Pearl Jam and Oasis,” that releasing singles made the record feel “ordinary,” that the record was the first of the band’s to be leaked and listened to in piecemeal – before discussing the music itself with glowing praise. Then Plagenhoef concludes the review with his “big statement”:

More than Kid A— and maybe more than any other LP of its time– Amnesiac is the kickoff of a messy, rewarding era in which rather than owning records that were of a piece, we listen and engage with a wide variety of sounds in jumbled, sometimes confusing ways. And Amnesiac sounds like what the dawn of the mp3 era sounded like: disconnected, self-aware, tense, eclectic, head-turning– an overload of good ideas inhibited by rules, restrictions, and conventional wisdom.

It’s a provocative construction, one which got me rethinking my own assessments of both Kid A and Amnesiac. Is Kid A’s status asthe final, nostalgic voyage for “the album” the reason why so many of us believe it to be one of the defining artistic statements of the past 10 years? And is the disappointment that some of us felt for Amnesiac reflect our post-millennial anxieties about where music was headed?

Deep stuff. But while I concede that being burdened with the task of following Kid A invariably colours my thoughts on Amnesiac, I don’t think it’s entirely fair to pass the buck and blame “the culture” for the record’s complicated reception. Even pulled out of context, most of the reasons are right there in the songs themselves.

The glory of Kid A is in how the songs are constructed around the soundscapes and atmospheres the band was exploring at the time. It’s a record as much about sound as it is song, and neither element suffers for it. My enduring problem with Amnesiac is that it often attempts to apply the same model of experimentation to songs that hew much closer to the band’s alt-rock past. What results are recordings that sound unjustly “weirded up for weird’s sake.” Songs like “I Might be Wrong” and “You and Whose Army” feel like they’re about ready to explode with energy, but the band keeps them reigned in behind muted distortion and muddled vocals.

If you’ve seen Radiohead perform any of Amnesiac’s tracks live – or listened to the takes of on the I Might Be Wrong live EP – this becomes crystal clear. While live versions of Kid A tracks sound like creative reinterpretations, Amnesiac’s songs sound oddly definitive on tour. “You and Whose Army” bottles itself in and bursts just as it should, and “Like Spinning Plates’” soul comes out when its vocals aren’t stupidly recorded backwards and then played forwards (even if I do miss some of the background effects on the album version).

I won’t deny that the record itself features some of the band’s best songs, and even a handful of their best recordings: “Pyramid Song” and “Life in a Glasshouse” are unimpeachable, and I actually enjoy the redundant-but-moody re-do of “Morning Bell” quite a bit. But then again, the record also has “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” which is my least favourite thing that the band has ever put to tape. Moreover, I fundamentally disagree with Plagenhoef’s claim that the record’s song order and flow is more important than Kid A (I nearly gagged when he suggested that you could put “Optimistic” through “Morning Bell” on Kid A in pretty much any order and it would still work). Amnesiac still feels jilted, scattered to me – and not in a good way.

Which renders my biggest pet peeve about Amnesiac even more frustrating: why were unquestionably better songs left off the record? Radiohead have always had great b-sides kicking around, but never have they feel as bizarrely tossed-aside as the ones backing Amnesiac’s singles. There’s the haunting atmosphere of “Worrywort,” the creepy build of “Cuttooth” and – most spectacular of all – the amazing “Fog,” which probably ranks in the band’s top three unfairly-relegated tracks. Two albums of material and no room for “Fog”? Really?

Ultimately, Amnesiac is hardly a failure – we’re still talking about the work of greatest band of the past 20 years here – but hardly a masterpiece. Where Plagenhoef and I agree is that the record represents Radiohead’s first step on a decade-long journey. But where he hears confidence, I hear a failed first attempt to marry the two worlds Radiohead had created for themselves: one where they existed as stellar songwriters and melodic craftsmen, the other where they fought sonic revolutions against the status quo. Kid A exists unquestionably in the latter, but Amnesiac feels awkwardly in between, as compromised as it is challenging. Radiohead would spend the aughts struggling within themselves to bridge this gap, a struggle resulting in solo projects, the fascinatingly-rudderless Hail to the Thief and the near-breakup of the band.

Until, of course, we got to In Rainbows, the confident masterpiece that succeeded where Amnesiac faltered: the sounds and the songs in perfect harmony, everything in its right place once again.

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One response to “Wrestling with reassessment of Radiohead’s Amnesiac

  1. For a time, I fell in the “Kid Amnesiac” camp, where I looked at these releases as yet another great double album that would have made a tremendous single album. Of course, I probably just lacked the attention span to fully appreciate both in their entirety. I also remember hearing “Like Spinning Plates’” live and realizing that there was something much greater going on that I had missed on record. Thanks for reminding me to revisit these albums.

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