Perhaps the most surprising thing about the new Radiohead album is how unsurprising it is.
Were it the product of any other band, Amnesiac would be heralded as a blast of fresh air, a shocking, mind-altering revision of the rock songwriting formula. Its sound would be called groundbreaking, its message obtuse, its future, dubious. Few, speculation would posit, would understand.
But Amnesiac is a Radiohead album, and Radiohead shattered those boundaries a year ago. Recorded during the same sessions that produced last year's Kid A, Amnesiac is every bit as arresting as its predecessor, agile in its movements, abstract in tone, stark and lush all at once. It transcends genre and defies commercial logic--again, there's not a hook or hit single to be found.
The band has argued in interviews that they released Amnesiac separately because its songs simply didn't coalesce with those on Kid A. While Amnesiac debunks its pre-release reputation as the "more accessible" album of the pair, it does have its differences. Songs like the opening track, "Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box," echo Kid A's tortured phobias ("I'm a reasonable man / get off my case" lead singer Thom Yorke whispers), but the album's sound is more diverse. Amnesiac retains Kid A's arctic vibe, but does so with spare piano leads ("Pyramid Song"), big guitars ("Knives Out"), a jazz band ("Life In A Glasshouse") and a symphony orchestra ("Dollars And Cents").
But the most striking aspect of Radiohead is still Yorke, whose voice gives the band its fearsome energy and fractured beauty. Amid all the musical shifts, he remains a constant: at times desperate, at times just plain scary, but always the center of attention. When the songs don't focus on Yorke--as on the the otherwise-astonishing "Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors"--they stop being the second coming of rock, and start sounding like a mediocre imitation of Aphex Twin.
It may not be a pop album, but last year's doubters can take comfort in the fact that Amnesiac has a few songs that recall older Radiohead. The breezy "Knives Out" would have fit perfectly on 1997's OK Computer, and the guitar-heavy "I Might Be Wrong" might have even found a home on 1995's The Bends.
Amnesiac leaves two questions in its wake. First, how did a sound this weird ever get so popular? And, more difficultly, where will--where can--this band go from here?
The answer to the first question is easy: Radiohead is, simply put, the best band on the planet right now, and we're not likely to see a better one this decade. And somehow, people know it.
As for that second question, there's one safe bet: Rock won't be the same when they're through.
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