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For your reappraisal: Radiohead - 'Amnesiac'

Radiohead's 2001 album 'Amnesiac'
Radiohead's 2001 album 'Amnesiac' Copyright Parlophone - Capitol
Copyright Parlophone - Capitol
By David Mouriquand
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In this new weekly series, our journalists reappraise a misunderstood record or share their appreciation for an undervalued album that deserves more love. This week: Radiohead's 'Amnesiac'.

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The other evening, after a long day at work, I sat down with a tumbler of whiskey – how else am I going to achieve my lifelong goal of having a Tom Waits rasp in my old age? – and put on a record to unwind.

I picked it out at random from my vinyl collection and landed on Radiohead’s fifth album, ‘Amnesiac’. This record had always been overshadowed by the band’s previous album, ‘Kid A’, and I hadn’t listened to it in a while. So why not? I’ll honour the blind pick.

A bit of background first. At the dawn of the ‘00s, Radiohead achieved musical-saviour status. Heralded as the new generation of rock following their triumphant ‘OK Computer’ (1997), they decided to not replicate the same sonic template and move forward – something chronicled in the fantastic documentary Meeting People Is Easy. Their next album, the aforementioned ‘Kid A’ (2000), would be an electroshock to listeners who had no idea what was coming next; a mesmerizing slap in the face of everyone eagerly anticipating 'OK Computer Part II'.

I remember buying ‘Kid A’ when it hit the shelves and being completely thrown, yet unable to pull away. To this day, it remains my favourite album from the Oxford quintet. And when Radiohead announced that their fifth album was coming just eight months later, I couldn’t wait to hear what was next.

Critical expectations were sky high after one of the most impressive 180° turns in music history. And when 2001’s ‘Amnesiac’ dropped without any promotional singles, this strategy only added to the air of mystery surrounding the album. While everyone was in agreement that it was a solid effort, it never quite got the same amount of love as its predecessor. In the passing years, many like myself dismissed ‘Amnesiac’ as ‘Kid A’’s less accomplished sister album, a collection of B-sides and outtakes that didn’t make the cut in 2000.

It’s taken me 22 years, but how wrong I’ve been.

Parlophone - Capitol
Amnesiac artworkParlophone - Capitol

I rediscovered ‘Amnesiac’ as an album that fully stands on its own two feet and is the furthest thing from a mishmash of leftovers. I was struck by how ambitious it is, an album which, like ‘OK Computer’ and ‘Kid A’ before it, managed to capture the anxieties of the time – a growing panic faced with ever-evolving technologies parasitically encroaching on daily life, the anxiety induced by atomic weapons, humanity’s unparalleled ability to outdo itself in the arseholery department – all of which continue to resonate to this day.

To the electronic sounds of ‘Kid A’, Radiohead added ambient, krautrock influences and even jazz inflections to the mix, making ‘Amnesiac’ a real grower-not-a-shower. There’s some off-kilter electronica (‘Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box’), cinematic - and politically engaged - tracks (‘Knives Out’, ‘You And Whose Army’), bass work galore (‘I Might Be Wrong’) and the track frontman Thom Yorke considers “the best thing (the band have) committed to tape, ever”, referring to the haunting ‘Pyramid Song’.

And then there’s that closing track: ‘Life in a Glasshouse’. 

Inspired by Louis Armstrong’s ‘St James Infirmary’ and featuring the late jazz legend Humphrey Lyttelton, this curtain fall is a crescendoing funeral dirge that sent shivers down my spine. I remember appreciating it at the time, but upon reappraisal, the trombones, the clarinets, that gorgeous trumpet played by Lyttelton himself – all conspired to making this song a moody and defiant send-off unlike anything the band has achieved since. It stands, alongside ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’ on their second record, ‘The Bends’, as the band’s best closing song.

Hell, I’d happily include it as one of their greatest songs, period.

By the time this New Orleans hat-tip ended, I found the album’s swampy atmospherics lingering with me. And before you jump to conclusions, the depressingly well-behaved dosage of Tennessee mouthwash I mentioned earlier on had nothing to do with it.

Yes, a track like ‘Pulk Pull Revolving Doors’ feels unfinished and the re-recording of ‘Kid A’’s ‘Morning Bell’, while pleasant, definitely contributes to that feeling many continue to cling onto – that of an album that is a companion piece rather than its own unique beast. But they’re two minor hiccups in an otherwise claustrophobic confection. Which leads me to the conclusion that ‘Amnesiac’ is without a doubt Radiohead’s most underrated album.

Granted, this isn’t the hottest of takes and I’m not putting myself out there too much – it’s not like I’m defending 2011's ‘The King of Limbs’ here. However, I always enjoy revisiting (and revising) my preconceptions. I might be wrong, you might say.

It’s worth noting that ‘Amnesiac’ was cannily rereleased in 2021 to mark the 20-year anniversary – sweet Paranoid Android, I’m old – of both ‘Kid A’ and ‘Amnesiac’, under the title ‘KID A MNESIA’. The reissue repackaged the two albums together, and it made perfect sense. To listen to these albums back-to-back reaffirms that they fully work as two halves of the same musical statement. However, when appreciated on their own merits, that second half is equally as adventurous as its older sibling and as just as powerful.

So, do yourself a favour – take the time to kick back one evening with a drink of your choice and discover or reappraise this unfairly overshadowed album, whose engulfing moodscapes took their time to work their magic on me. Maybe you’ve been clued up for ages, and I’m just playing catch up. But better late than never.

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