Every 10 years or so it seems music enters some sort of revolutionary standoff: A band takes the critics by surprise, tries something new, the crowds love it and hate it and the influence drops down into other bands for years to follow. From Elvis Presley’s gyrations of the ’50s to the Beatlemania of the ’60s the kids have always gone crazy for original wierdness. The social, political and cultural influence of music on the world, and vice versa, has been there for each coming-of-age sequence. And after the psychedelic, disco and new wave years, the music industry hit a disgusting stalemate: Boy Bands. Popmarketed, superfluous junk food — a craving for more synchronized dancing, fabulous light shows, media lapdogs and a new market: increasingly spend-happy teenage girls.
But along came a spider. After ten (twenty? thirty?) years of cacophony Radiohead emerged.
Rock and roll, thank heavens, is back. And it will never be the same again.
Splicing through the crap comes a solid band with a solid mission. Straight out of the trend-o-folds of Europe, Thom Yorke’s crooning voice and words of on-cue alienation get better with each album.
Their latest, Amnesiac, released in June and produced with help from Nigel Godrich, forgets only one thing: the rules. The album as a whole continues to lead Radiohead down the road they designed when OK Computer won the Grammy for Album of the Year five years ago.
What’s nice about Amnesiac, and most Radiohead in general, is that behind the weird production and utterly indecipherable lyrics lies the simple structure of rock and roll. Stripped down, Radiohead is nothing more than five guys who love to jam and write pop songs. But where they step ahead of neo-virtuoso Beatle-wannabe rockers is in their ability to conceptualize more than three chords and the truth. It is in their ability to express themselves more dramatically than any band in history.
There are really no marketable single tracks on the album. Amnesiac stands out, as do Radiohead’s previous releases, by itself as a concept album. The tracks need each other; without the bigger picture it would even be harder to understand.
But to detail the finer moments of the CD, one couldn’t pass over “Dollars and Cents.” The track is genius, but it takes a lot of listening to recognize it. The song is subtly anti-corporate (“We are the dollars and cents / And the pounds and pence / and the Mark and the Yen and yeah / We’re going to crack your little souls”) and seems to take a strong hit against the very business which may control them (EMI Records, by the way). Lyrically, Yorke role-plays a lyricist who has been taken over by the industry. He fires monster threats, referencing the Beatles at the same time (“Be constructive with yer blues”). But another voice chimes through: The guy who just wants to make music. Aside from its lyrical curiousities, the song is musically challenging as well. Much like many other songs on the album, “Dollars and Cents” features a multitude of effects-ridden guitars, fancy computer work and less-than-standard percussion.
“You and Whose Army,” track 4, is as provocative as it gets. It could be argued that this track is the band’s tell-all tell off to their contenders in the music world (“Come on if you think / You can take us on / … / You and whose army?”) Here, Yorke might just be challenging other bands to succeed them. Whether it is because they realize no one really can, or whether they truly want to hear what the rest of the world has to say is not clear, but the message is.
The song may be the most beautiful song Radiohead has ever written. Beginning with a slightly distorted jazz guitar and gospel-sounding background noise, it builds ala OK Computer’s “Exit Music” into a poetic masterpiece of triumph.
The debate over the greatest Radiohead album will never be fully resolved, but there will never be an argument over whether or not their sound has grown up with them in each progressive album.
When OK Computer revolutionized music late last decade, only to leave room for Kid A to transform all we know about sound, it was hard to imagine where Radiohead would go next. But Amnesiac fills in the gaps of both with the sounds of jazz (complete with a jazz combo on the last track), backwards songwriting and more of the same: good, old-fashioned rock and roll.