When Radiohead released their award-winning, genre-defying, hyphen-abusing album Kid A last year, Thom Yorke declared that he had no plans to actually listen to it himself, proving that he really is one step ahead of everybody else. Because once the hoopla died down, all fans were left with was $16.99 worth of dodgy electric-piano solos and dub textures and sensitive lyrics about alienation and lemons. As The Bends and OK Computer showed, Radiohead are a truly great band when it comes to wussy guitar ballads – one of the best ever. But on Kid A, they turned into a veritable Jefferson Laptop, recycling everything fatuous and flatulent about Seventies prog rock for their very own Tales From Trip-Hopographic Oceans. As Kid A punched all the profundity buttons for almost an hour, I kept recalling the famous apocryphal words of Lou Reed on his own double-album noise opus, Metal Machine Music: “Anybody who gets to Side Four is dumber than I am.”
Amnesiac, Radiohead’s hasty follow-up, is pure leftoverture, all songs culled from the Kid A sessions. It’s already getting a negative reaction from people who took Kid A too seriously and now feel burned. But for some strange reason, it’s a terrific record – even the fuzzy instrumental diddles are pleasant background. And like Kid A, it debuted at the top of the charts with no airplay, proving that there’s something about this pathetically confused band that strikes a chord in these pathetically confused times. People obviously appreciate the lads for trying too hard at a time when nobody else even bothers. Whether we’re King Crimson fans, Bowie fans, Nirvana fans or Patti Smith fans, we can hear Radiohead as heroic art-rock holdouts, breathing some life into our dashed hopes, and we’re grateful.
The only Kid A song I liked enough to tape was the sole wussy guitar ballad, “Optimistic,” a direct rip of Blind Faith’s classic-rock staple “Can’t Find My Way Home.” Maybe Radiohead meant to recontextualize it as a critique of the “blind faith” of our sick society, to remind us that we, too, are wasted and can’t find our way home. Or something. But more likely it was just a pretty melody they half-remembered and felt guilty about liking. Amnesiac has four or five wussy guitar ballads, pushed to the first half of the CD for easy consumer access, and so it’s at least four or five times as good as Kid A. (“I Might Be Wrong” bites the Allman Brothers, while “Knives Out” – quelle concept – sounds like Radiohead!) It definitely makes you feel for these guys: They’re so great at guitar rock, so not great at the loftier things they’d rather be doing, so dull in chasing the respectable middlebrow fallacy that abstract atmospherics are more evolved than songs. “You should see [guitarist] Jonny [Greenwood]’s gear, man,” Thom Yorke raved to Rolling Stone last winter. “He’s got all this patch-chord gear. He gets the most amazing sounds. And he’s only read the first twenty pages of the manual. He’s got another 200 to go.” Ominous words, to be sure. But there’s still hope for Radiohead: For the love of God, can somebody please steal that manual?
This story is from the August 16th, 2001 issue of Rolling Stone.