In between arena tours and Number One albums, Radiohead want to get away from it all. Not a week in Goa or a summer in Provence but a more complete escape: oblivion. The songs on Amnesiac contemplate suicide, divorce, paranoia and mysterious disappearances, and the music follows them into the ether.
Amnesiac is the work of a band determined to pursue its most wayward and musicianly impulses wherever they might lead. As such, it's clear proof that the progressive-rock impulse survived the twentieth century. On Amnesiac, which was made during the same recording sessions that yielded Kid A last year, Radiohead have set out to erase all that their listeners once expected. Acting like a bunch of artists — not, as in most current rock, a business consortium touting a consistent product — Radiohead continue to slough off the style that made them standard-bearers for anthemic Brit pop in the 1990s.
They started on Kid A by masking their old identity as a guitar-driven, big-crescendo rock band, and with Amnesiac they have gone on to dismantle whatever they might have taken for granted about songs themselves. All that's left to signify Radiohead is Thom Yorke's pained high-tenor voice, moving ever closer to the end of his tether. In "Dollars and Cents," which bitterly rejects commercial advice, he moans, "Let me out of here," murmuring as if he can barely remember how to shape human words, while the chords behind him waver between major and minor, perpetually unsettled.
Amnesiac is full of computerized clicks and hums — the kinds of tracks made by geeks alone with their gizmos — and of instruments and voices so heavily filtered they sound alienated even from themselves. Only one song, "Knives Out," presents itself as real-time music for Radiohead's guitars (Yorke, Ed O'Brien and Jonny Greenwood), bass (Colin Greenwood) and drums (Phil Selway). More often, the camaraderie implied by a band is replaced by the sense that each arrangement is a private delusion or a barely overheard conspiracy.
The human touch and its visceral impact are no longer central to the music. The songs on Amnesiac are barely populated vistas, subdued and ambient but not at all soothing. Electric guitars are scarce, and never heroic. Instead, there are semiautomatic rhythm loops, indecipherable background voices, pockets of static, and writhing string arrangements with electronic penumbrae. And when the band does write a melody with a grand arc, the arrangements leave Yorke sounding not triumphant but stranded.
Radiohead's career has been a pilgrimage into isolation. Back in 1993, when they were inventing themselves as the sociopath's answer to U2, they could at least imagine an infatuation with a "special" girl in "Creep." By the time Radiohead made their big statement about technology and dehumanization on OK Computer in 1997, characters in the songs were seesawing between megalomania and anomie. With Kid A three years later, the songs craved escape from all remnants of human society, taking refuge in bunkers and abysses, mathematical riff patterns and equalizer tweaks. "I'm not here," Yorke sang. "This isn't happening." Yet once the initial disorientation wore off, the drama of Radiohead's melodies still came through.
On Amnesiac, the band is attacking those melodies. In "Pull/Pulk Revolving Doors," Yorke's pitch-shifted speaking voice lists various doors above a battered, muffled, half-reversed rhythm sequence. "Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box," in which a man contemplates a wasted life, squashes a potential dance track into shallow clanks and ticks, then defaces it with blobs of dissonance and feedback.
Amnesiac can, inevitably, be heard as leftovers from Kid A. (As daring as Radiohead were at the time, they weren't about to release a double album.) "Morning Bell Amnesiac" is an alternate, more desperate version of Kid A's divorce song "Morning Bell," this time with instruments dissolving into disharmony as if drowned in acid rain. As in Kid A's "The National Anthem," jazz musicians are on hand for "Life in a Glasshouse," providing something like a New Orleans dirge as Radiohead express a peculiar fear for a rock band: "There's someone listening in." The album feels slightly padded, but in its better songs, Radiohead subtly extend themselves. A few discs ago, "Pyramid Song" might have been a straightforward march, which would have been perfectly adequate for the Egyptian funeral suggested by the lyrics. Now, its timing undulates and breathes, with piano chords pausing to make room for moaning strings while Yorke's vocal hovers like a ritual chant. "I Might Be Wrong" takes a bluesy guitar lick — itself a rarity for Radiohead — and enmeshes it in lowdown funk, mixing handmade and programmed riffs that transform its uncertainties into cross-rhythms. It's like ZZ Top kidnapped by Autechre.
Amnesiac saves Yorke's sweetest croon and its most luminous, Beatlesque melody (complete with a "Hey Jude" buildup) for "You and Whose Army?," the honeyed sneer of a band that intends to hold the world at bay. So far, so good; true to the better impulses of progressive rock, Radiohead turn most of their self-indulgences into advances.
Radiohead were fascinated by trapdoors when they recorded Kid A and Amnesiac, ready to fall into unknown possibilities. "Trapdoors that open, I spiral down," Yorke sang on Kid A's "In Limbo," while Amnesiac's "Pull/Pulk Revolving Doors," considers "trapdoors that you can't come back from." With Amnesiac, Radiohead tumble further away from their old reflexes. The next album will tell whether the trapdoor has shut behind them.