Album Reconstruction is an attempt to right the “wrongs” of those album song selections that frustrate, divide and prevent good albums from becoming great ones. In this edition, Chris Flackett looks to combine the best of Radiohead’s Kid A and Amnesiac to make the super album…Kid Amnesiac!
I know this might be sacrilege to a lot of people, but Radiohead’s Kid A’and Amnesiac albums never felt truly complete to me. Partly because there were tracks on both that never truly grabbed me (“Treefingers,” “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors”). But also because both albums were recorded at the same set of sessions and released only a year apart, they feel very much two parts of one much larger whole. They share a sound, a tone, a feel and a collection of styles.
I’ve wondered before why Radiohead didn’t just put the whole lot out as one big double album, but then again, after the taste of mass fame that came in the wake of OK Computer, the band were keen to avoid anything that smacked of rock cliché, and the double album was perhaps a symbol of the excess they wished to avoid.
Still, for me, it leaves the feeling of incomplete work. These albums have always fascinated me because across the two discs there are enough absolute classic tracks that if you put them together on one single release it would create perhaps one of Radiohead’s greatest albums.
So, with that in mind, I present to you…Kid Amnesiac!
Track 1: “Everything In Its Right Place”
The perfect introduction to the album, setting the agenda with its odd, elongated 10/4-time signature and the warm yet alien tones from the Prophet-5 analogue synthesiser.
Up to this point, Radiohead had not been known for sparseness in their music. Yet, the amount of space created here is startling, threatening to swallow the listener up through its event horizon and into the hollow of its black hole centre. In fact, the metaphor bears fruit in the middle portion of the song where layers of cut-up and manipulated Thom Yorke vocals mass loudly, only to dissipate into celestial sparseness on the other side.
This sparseness of music is matched by the pared-down nature of Yorke’s lyrics, functioning more like a haiku or a Buddhist koan. “Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon/There are two voices in my head/What was that you tried to say?” A lack of mental stability, a sourness of mood, an inability to communicate; everything does not sound like it’s in its right place.
But this song is in its right place, here, opening the album.
Track 2: “Pyramid Song”
Infamous for its difficult-to-discern time signature (a swung 12/8 seems to be the general consensus), this is possibly one the most funereal and jazzy singles ever to reach the UK top 5.
Over staccato stabs of mourning piano, Thom Yorke essays an emotive tale of suicide (unless the jump into the river is metaphorical) and his experience crossing the threshold into the afterlife.
Full of fantastical images (“a moon full of stars and astral cars”) and matter-of-fact sentimentality (“all the figures I used to see/all my lovers were there with me”), the song suggests a reincarnation, as Yorke sees “all my past and futures,” futures of course being plural and suggesting multiple existences lived. Yorke sums up the whole experience beautifully, giving us hope that “there was nothing to fear and nothing to doubt.” The fact that the song repeats the same set of lyrics twice is a stroke of genius, mimicking the circular nature of reincarnation as suggested by the lyrics themselves.
The music rises to the challenge of the lyrics, dropping gorgeous jazzy drums into the mix after the first verse that roll and shapeshift like the waves of a tempestuous sea. Sharp piercing strings emphasise the melody, while all manner of strange little digital squalls fill in the gaps and put the icing on the cake.
Sublime. Just sublime.
Track 3: “The National Anthem”
My friend and I used to have a running joke: whenever a situation or a mood became tense or ominous, we’d say it was a “National Anthem” moment and smile and nod knowingly. Such was the impact this track’s driving and ominous bass line had on us.
People describe this amazing groove as jazz rock, and while there is a definite aspect of jazz there, links can be made to the driving rhythms and cosmic sonics of krautrock groups like Amon Düll II and Can, and space rock groups like Lemmy-era Hawkwind. That bass line, dark and relentless, is the key over which everything else flows.
The band wanted something of the organised chaos of a live Charles Mingus concert recording they heard and to that end directed the brass section during the track’s explosive middle and end sections to “sound like a traffic jam.” If listened to with this in mind, it does sound as if you’ve been dropped blindfolded into the middle of an anonymous urban centre, with all the traffic and hustle and bustle washing over you in a great big wave of sensory overload. It’s sinister and extraordinary in equal measure. A superb piece of music.
Track 4: “Idioteque”
This is a track I would describe as a wondrous experiment in punk 2-step garage music. Not that the music is remotely “punk” in its sound. I mean the spirit of punk, the idea that anyone can have a go or form a band or write a song, as long as you have passion, playfulness and imagination to give it a go.
“Idioteque” reminds me of a garage track, leaning to its side, trying to stay upright. It’s wonky, and yet because it creates something new, something arty and vibrant in its own way, a third path formed between arts lab electronics and dance music. It’s interesting so many rock bands who go “dance” yield to Madchester or Industrial rhythms when Radiohead laid an attractive template here, complete with a 2-step beat.
Thom Yorke drapes vaguely apocalyptic lines about ice ages coming and mobiles chirping over the whole but, as anyone who has ever seen the band play the track live and seen Yorke’s wild bursts of erratic dancing, the mood is one of a band having fun, something that was in short supply for Radiohead in the aftermath of OK Computer.
Track 5: “You and Whose Army?”
A ghost song to my ears, an eerie message from the past that refuses to be silenced and forces its way into the present. The song legitimately haunts you. Part of that is due to the sparse, piano-led backing that methodically works its way into your brain and lingers there like spectral fog.
It’s also in the way Thom Yorke’s voice has been recorded and processed. The microphones were muffled with egg boxes and the vocals filtered through the loud speaker of an ondes Martenot, an early electronic instrument, giving Yorke’s voice the paradoxical quality of sounding far away and “in the room” simultaneously, a voice singing from the other side.
And what does the restless spirit have to impart to us? A tale of powerful people abusing their power, rendered in cryptic, emotive speech, civil disobedience dripping from the challenge to “come on if you think you can take us on.”
And the ghost takes courage from its rhetoric, and it takes strength and then leads the band into a triumphant-sounding climax of bright major piano chords, leading the charge of ghost horses into victory or oblivion. A real call to arms, I take courage from this song’s rallying call.
Track 6: “Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box”
An anthem for the reasonable amongst us who find themselves being put on and pressurised by the unreasonableness of modern “civilized” existence, this song features one of the most brutally concise descriptions of not becoming all you hoped you would that I’ve ever heard: “After years of waiting/Nothing came/And you realise you’re looking in/looking in the wrong place/I’m a reasonable man/Get off my case.” Terrifying.
The music is glitchy, all cut up voices in the background, a low-key bass line that descends and ascends in cubist fashion, a beat made up of equally digital and metallic sounds and synth notes that dance and slip all over the whole.
Equal parts melancholic and dance-robotic, this is a great track. I well recommend to listen to the full band play this live, as it transforms entirely into a fuzz bass-led, dark funk banger.
Track 7: “I Might Be Wrong”
The closest to an out and out rock track on this album, “I Might Be Wrong” finds Radiohead riding a tough blues-rock groove reminiscent of something The Stone Roses might have cooked up for Second Coming, but moodier, tauter, less laddish swagger. The drums have a real snap to them, while Yorke seems to be singing from the other side again, his vocals straddling the paradox of being equally near and far.
According to speculators online, Yorke has explained that the lyrics come from the point of view of a atheist who has seen the light, so to speak, and now focuses on the good times as he knows he can relive these when he takes the memories with him into the afterlife. It’s a beautiful, eastern-tinged, concept and I do recall reading an NME interview with Yorke around the time of the release of Amnesiac where he said he had been reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead, so these sort of ideas would certainly been in his thinking at the time.
“Let’s go down the waterfall.” Why not? Hell, when the sound of the drop is this good…
Track 8: “Knives Out”
The guitars, acoustic and electric, return to the fore here but we’re closer to “Street Spirit“ territory than we are “Creep.” Said to be influenced by The Smiths, it must be said that I can’t remember Johnny Marr composing anything that sounded this desolate.
This is the sound of a sad resignation to despair, the understanding that things aren’t going to get better. Without romanticising the feeling, such sentiment can be beautifully expressed in art, and this song, with its mournful arpeggios and a powerful vocal from Yorke, is a prime example of that.
That the lyrics are said to be simultaneously about cannibalism and a businessman walking out on his wife gives the song a further sinister edge, with Yorke’s demands, given with sad conviction, to look into his mouth giving us a queasy feeling that we’re next on the menu.
One of Radiohead’s best songs.
Track 9: “Morning Bell”
This is the Kid A original as opposed to the slower, more orchestral version on Amnesiac (which is still great but not as suited here).
An exercise in great levels of tension, the song drives along on foreboding bass and almost motorik-type drums with a military flourish, whilst low-key guitar trembles at intervals and moonlit keys hum over the top. It’s the aural equivalent of talking a walk along a haunted road at midnight, walking with strong intent, to either escape or to prevent something else from escaping first. It’s eerie and dramatic and wonderful, of course.
It also fits the lyrics better than I originally thought as well. The long-standing belief was that the lyrics referred to a bitter divorce, ending with the violent demand to “cut the kids in half!”
But upon researching for this article, I discovered that Thom Yorke had given a different take, explaining that the lyrics describe the feeling he had of a ghost being in the house he was living in at the time, having described his impressions in fragments on mini disc recordings. That Yorke also says the ghost was “friendly” also makes me wonder what he would have wrote if the ghost had been malevolent. An easy going lyric, it is not!
What it is, though, is an exciting, tension headache of a song. Just right for sound-tracking a ghost story.
Track 10: “Life In a Glasshouse”
And after the ghost story comes the funeral. Evoking a New Orleans funeral ceremony with its mournful jazz swing (provided by famed jazz musician Humphry Lyttleton and his band), the band plays loose, rough around the edges, a contrast to the smooth electronics across the rest of the album yet complimentary with its sinister overtones and jazz colourings.
The contrast in dynamics between the hushed, conspiratorial verses and the big, bluesy swells of the chorus makes for a big, dramatic moment at the end of an album full of hauntings and death. This might be a funeral but the deceased isn’t going out without one last point to make.
This is a song, according to Yorke, about how the media hound people, and how one victim of such practises papered their windows with newspapers, reflecting the media’s image back at itself. “Someone’s listening in,” he croons dejectedly. The years lived since only bear him out. There’s always someone listening in now, or viewing your profile. Which makes Kid Amnesiac still relevant to the modern world, perhaps more now than at the time of writing and release.
In any case, reducing the Kid A/Amnesiac sessions to one 10-track album, concise and with intent, reveals a common thread of death, the afterlife and hauntings and, more than not, really brings into focus what Radiohead were during this period.
May they long continue to be so.