The prop plane circled the ballpark, trailing the type of banner you might also see at the beach. The message, though, was not what you usually see at Dodger Stadium. “Radiohead Amnesiac” it read, orbiting lazily in the afternoon heat. The guy beside me looked up and pondered. “I wonder who they think their audience is,” he said.
“You and what army,” I should have answered. A quick summary before the plane runs out of fuel: In 1997 Radiohead issued OK Computer, a panoramic wall of datapanik that critiqued new tech through dazzling use of some very old technology—electric guitars. They sold about 1.5 million U.S. copies, influenced indie rockers and turntablistas and a few brave rappers, made a documentary where they begged the world to go away like they were vampires melting in the sunlight. And then they really freaked out. Last year they released Kid A, which, besides having really bad cover art, freaked out Radiohead’s fans—with basically no guitars, no science-fiction narratives, and plenty of emergency-room blips that sounded creepy, downsized, evasive. Radiohead came back from success by basically turning into another band. The whole record arrived as a statement about what they were not (rockers or pop stars), and what they would not do (tour, advertise, do interviews, shoot videos, enjoy themselves). Kid A confused everyone and sold about 800,000 U.S. copies. Most important, with Thom Yorke ready to spontaneously combust, Kid A chewed out some negative space, turned down the buzz, and let them get on with making music.
The shock is that what the reaction to Kid A gave them the courage to do after all—besides reach out to their audience with interviews, videos, and airplanes—was release a better Kid A. Or maybe that should be said another way. Kid A introduced us to their new intentions, and what a year ago seemed like a gesture now sounds like—hey!—Music. Amnesiac‘s songs are taken from the very same sessions that produced Kid A, and the basic outline is the same: verse-chorus song structures only when the mood hits, texture as important as melody, and all over the place the same electronic poptones—the sound of dead brain cells bouncing down an incandescent hospital stairway. Where Kid A couldn’t help but be seen as a reaction to fame and intense scrutiny, Amnesiac illuminates what Radiohead are now, and will likely be for a long time: an evasive, willfully experimental rock band who feel uncomfortable in their own skins.
Which isn’t to say that there aren’t some subtle distinctions between the two records. If Kid A‘s songs seem rooted in a pitched battle over the future, Amnesiac‘s feel recorded the moment after. The songs are obsessed with achieving a sense of peace, a release from a world that’s power mad, polluted, and obsessed with technology. Amnesiac feels like the first post-WTO record, its antiglobalism so deep at the core of the music that it feels intuitive. This should be no surprise from a band that has plugged Naomi Klein’s No Logo from the stage, and a singer who has spoken out for third-world debt forgiveness. Where the end-of-the-world dread was once framed in slightly corny sci-fi narratives, it now just is. Events have conspired to make this music mean more—events and symbols, like the black-clad messengers marching down urban centers all over the world, trashing McDonald’s and questioning globalism. And the music has changed too, and I bet will continue to change for records to come. They are wrestling with a sound that eschews tension and release, and instead mimics processes—decay, disruption, memory.
Yorke is a particularly English sort of social critic: Even when he’s singing about the end of the world, his words are modestly few. “While you make pretty speeches/I’m being cut to shreds,” he croons on “Like Spinning Plates,” and that’s about as direct as he gets; he doesn’t trust pols (“You and What Army” has been described as a slap at Tony Blair), but even less does he trust the confessional mode. So how he conveys his themes ends up a little round-the-way, a strange strategy when your subjects include the heat death of the universe. Except maybe it’s not a strategy after all. It’s just him.
He’s stubborn in a passive kind of way. Last year he drove journalists crazy by refusing to answer questions except through odd, shattered online dispatches; the truly twisted thing about this was that driving journalists crazy didn’t even seem to provide much pleasure. Thom doesn’t know from fun. He doesn’t seem to get pleasure, either, from telling Radiohead fans in “Knives Out” that guitars are never to fully return. “I want you to know/He’s not coming back/He’s bloated and frozen,” he sings at half the tempo the band is playing. But then: “Still there’s no point in letting it go to waste.”
And the rest of the band? They hang with him. Yorke once described his relations with his bandmates as akin to the UN, where he’s the United States. He’s a behemoth more equal than others, but if the other guys have strong feelings about that, they hide them well. They hide themselves well, too, when the music requires it—drummer Phil Selway replaced by a hard drive in one cut, reemerging on “Pyramid Song” with a head-bobbing full trap set flourish. These UN delegates craft a sound that takes in the stubbornly passive techno of the Warp label and folk-rock as embraced by R.E.M. and Sigur Rós, a sound that wants to embrace ’60s big-band jazz but doesn’t quite know how—”Life in a Glass House” is like Mingus produced by George Martin, a great way to end the record.
They must have voted as a bloc to come up with “I Might Be Wrong,” which sports a fat blues guitar line lodged like a mote in God’s eye. Here they are a band in the preindustrial sense: you know, with guitars and a drummer and stuff. But then they flip the script and the chip skips and they become a symphony, or a hard drive. It might get a little random, without the 10-ton prude at the microphone. But as long as Thom Yorke sings with a disengaged voice that seeps out of the muck like swamp gas, and as long as his lyrics continue in their current clipped mode, he and Radiohead might just remain brilliant, strong-willed, and downright clammy. The kind of people who will smash a Starbucks, and then embarrassedly excuse themselves and withdraw into the dust.