Late one night not too long ago, Radiohead guitarist Ed O'Brien sat and listened to his group's new album, Amnesiac, all the way through. With him was artist Stanley Donwood, who designs the British band's graphics with singer Thom Yorke. When the record was over, O'Brien says, Donwood made an astute comparison between the eleven new tracks and the inscrutable electronica of Radiohead's last release, the controversial Number One album Kid A.
"Stanley said a great thing," O'Brien recalls. "He said, 'Kid A is like you pick up the phone, you call somebody, and there's an answering machine on the other end. With Amnesiac, you get through to that person. And you're engaged in the conversation."
When Amnesiac, Radiohead's fifth album, is issued in America by Capitol Records on June 5th, some fans might listen to the first number, "Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box," and wonder if they've gotten a dial tone. The song opens with clanging-pie-plate percussion and a pneumatic pulse, building into a gray puree of synthesizer effects and distorted-guitar belches. But the pivotal difference between Kid A and Amnesiac becomes obvious when Yorke's bruised-angel warble cuts in. "I'm a reasonable man," he sings with irritated clarity. "Get off my case/Get off my case/Get off my case." The effect is like Kid A turned inside out.
"That's a good analogy," O'Brien says cheerfully. "Because the vocals are so upfront, the songs engage you." On Kid A, Yorke often sounded like a ghost trapped inside an ice sculpture. On Amnesiac, he sings in front of the music with confrontational intimacy – in the harrowing ballads "Pyramid Song" and "You and Whose Army?"; against the real-rock dirt of "I Might Be Wrong"; amid the mooing jazz-funeral brass in the closing hymn, "Life in a Glasshouse." "When you listen to the two albums," the guitarist, 33, continues, "they sound completely different. They could have been made in different years. The fact is, Kid A and Amnesiac were made at the same time."
"But there are two frames of mind in there," notes drummer Phil Selway, "a tension between our old approach of all being in a room playing together and the other extreme of manufacturing music in the studio. I think Amnesiac comes out stronger in the band-arrangement way.
"In some ways," be adds enthusiastically, "some of the best songs from the sessions are on Amnesiac." It is a measure of Radiohead's confidence in Amnesiac that the band, which released no singles and made no videos for Kid A, will be doing both for the new album.
Amnesiac marks the end of a long, strained odyssey of self-examination for Radiohead. In late 1998, Yorke, O'Brien, Selway, bassist Colin Greenwood and his younger brother, guitarist Jonny Greenwood, came off the road after two exhausting years of touring behind their 1997 hit album, OK Computer. "If you've seen Meeting People Is Easy," says Bryce Edge, one of the group's three managers, referring to Grant Gee's documentary of that tour, "you know the state, emotionally, they were in." Yorke, in particular, was fed up with the music business and the numbing cycle of writing, rehearsing and recording rock records. Edge and his partners, Chris Hufford and Brian Message, installed Radiohead in their own studio, a renovated barn in the band's native Oxfordshire, and gave them no deadline. "We said, 'Go away. You can tell us when you want to do things,' "says Edge.
In a mid-January posting on the Internet, Yorke, 32, responded to a query about the three years between OK Computer and the Kid A/Amnesiac twins with a mixture of sheepishness and defensive pride. "It's a pretty shit turnout . . . something like two minutes of music a month," the singer admitted. "However, personally speaking, a lot of other shit needed to be sorted out, which was nobody's business but ours. We couldn't stay in the same place . . . . The alternative was nothing again ever, if you know what I mean."
"There were some tenuous moments," Selway, 34, says with a nervous laugh when asked if Radiohead had been in any danger of breaking up while making the two new albums. "There was this dissatisfaction with the way we used to work, but the new way using computers more, using sequencers an awful lot – wasn't producing results."
"We didn't have any arrangements of songs," O'Brien says. "Everybody seemed scared of making arrangements, of finishing songs. Because finishing stuff implies that other people have to hear it. And that implies that you have to embark on the big fanfare, the world tour and stuff like that. We were genuinely fearful of that."
At the end of 1999, the band members held a meeting to settle the question of what to do with the nearly fifty pieces of music they had amassed after a year of recording with engineer and coproducer Nigel Godrich. They quickly hit an impasse over whether to pack most of the stuff, much of it still incomplete, onto a double album or spread the best bits over two single LPs.
"We were quite split for two days," Selway recalls. "Thom was very into the idea of a double album, of clearing the decks: 'This is what we've been doing for three years, now we want to move on.' I thought a double album would have been quite unpalatable. People said they had problems with Kid A. Imagine if it had been a double album. I don't think anyone would have given it a second hearing."
O'Brien agreed. "I think OK Computer was a song too long," he concedes with an embarrassed chuckle. "With our music, fortyfive minutes is enough. That's all the human ear can take."
At the end of those two days, Radiohead decided to issue two single discs. Amnesiac has its share of Kid A-style art games; one song, "Like Spinning Plates," was built over the backing track of another unreleased song, "I Will," played backward. But Amnesiac is the more relaxed and, in its way, human of the pair. First released on Kid A, wrapped in gauzy electronics, "The Morning Bell Amnesiac" appears on Amnesiac in a delicately jingling rerecording. "Pyramid Song," which Radiohead debuted on tour last year, started as a haunting live studio performance by Selway at the drums and Yorke on piano and vocal. Rolling strings, arranged by Jonny Greenwood, were overdubbed in the majestic echo of Dorchester Abbey, a twelfth-century church about five miles from Radiohead's studio. The result, O'Brien says, "is the best song we've recorded."
"You and Whose Army?" might be a close second. It begins as a bleak piano prayer, like John Lennon's "Imagine" via Nina Simone, then erupts with eccentric radiance – all in a little more than three minutes. "We did track that one together," says O'Brien. "We rehearsed it a bit, not too much, then just went in and did it. It's just us doing our thing as a band.
"It's interesting because the whole lead up is about two minutes – holding back, holding back. Then it breaks out for that final minute. In the Radiohead of old, on OK Computer, that break would have lasted four minutes. We would have carried on 'Hey Jude'-style."
On January 30th, again on the Internet, Yorke explained the meaning of the title Amnesiac: "I read that the Gnostics believe when we are born we are forced to forget where we have come from in order to deal with the trauma of arriving in this life. I thought this was really fascinating. It's like the river of forgetfulness."
He also declared himself very happy with Amnesiac: "It may have been recorded at same time [sic] as Kid A, but it comes from a different place I think. I used to listen to it on my laptop on tour, supposedly trying to find a running order but really because I was so happy to have something that we had done that nobody else had heard and was our secret."
The secret is out. By early April, the entire album was available on Napster, according to Followmearound.com, a Radiohead Web site. And Radiohead, who played only three North American shows to support Kid A, will celebrate Amnesiac's release by covering the whole U.S. on a two-leg summer tour of amphitheaters. "We were hoping to bring our tent over," says Edge, referring to the 10,000-capacity circus tent that Radiohead used in Europe last year. "But because of the size of America, the logistics of traveling, it was quite complicated. We'd need more time to plan it. If we do it, it will be the summer after."
O'Brien declines to make any promises about Radiohead's future. "What will happen next is not entirely resolved," he says. "We haven't been in the studio for a while. We're not touring this time the way we used to. People have families now." Yorke became a father on February 6th; he and his girlfriend, Rachel, had a son, Noah.
"I don't want to sound negative," O'Brien insists. "Things have changed. It's good. But everything was thrown up in the air two years ago. It's still settling."
He notes one encouraging sign, however: "Part of Thom's thing over the last three years was him wanting to change direction. He felt like a boxer hemmed into a comer, on the ropes. Those sessions were the first time that he did not produce lyric sheets for us when we were rehearsing.
"But we rehearsed before Christmas, playing some new stuff, and, hey, there was a lyric sheet there! It was the first time in four years. It was like, 'Now that's good to see!'"
This story is from the May 24th, 2001 issue of Rolling Stone.