Countdown to IN RAINBOWS Pt. 5 — AMNESIAC

Before I begin, it is important to note that many people, including myself, think that one of the best if not the best discussions of Amnesiac was done at the Last Plane to Jakarta site some years back. As with many of the older pieces on other subjects there, this multipart series is not currently archived, but I would be very remiss not to acknowledge the excellence of that earlier effort, as well as not to point your direction to the site’s quality as a whole. Please visit when you have the time.

Continued from here:

It is late spring 2001.

At various points I am commenting on Amnesiac on a message board thread. Many others are there with other things to say.

“To my joy I found this lying on my doormat this very morning and I think I’m enjoying it so far.”

I would have been posting to this thread from one of two primary locations. One would have been from home, the other would have been my desk at work in a quiet moment or two (it’s near the end of the school year and things are very understandably busy). At the time I am working at what I jokingly call my ‘corner office,’ which strictly speaking is office space for two or three people. I’m the only person in the office, though, with space for another person being located further up-front, while the third person works over in a separate building. So in practical terms I’m alone, which I do take advantage of as I can — and it’s nice to be able to listen to music at work, it has to be said.

“My first impressions I remember quite clearly were that it was a good modern pop album.”

Over four years on from my hesitant and relatively speaking out-of-nowhere entry into the university workforce in full, I am much more comfortable in my job. I am nowhere near fully up to the level I could be, in retrospect, and there are still important lessons to learn that will have to be dealt with in the future. However, I have already helped improve a lot of things in my area of employment with library reserves and while certain frustrations remain due to technological limitations at the time, the future looks bright.

“It sounds like umm…if you have the flu and you are hearing Al Jolson songs in your head during a hallucintory state. Clearly, it is crap.”

Library social life, outside of one close friend who also works elsewhere in the system, is something I tend to keep at arm’s length — not entirely, but as a means of distinction. There are people I work with closely who I think are extremely good folks, though, and if we aren’t close per se we do get along, though doubtless I’ve caused a few frustrations over the years just by being myself. One of the happier events involves my then-boss, a couple of years before he completed his MBA and moved on to banking work, calling from the hospital where his first child, a daughter has been born. Jack is a character in general and he has spent much of the run-up time to the birth advancing various not-entirely-serious (we think) theories about how easy child care will be — “Just bring the baby into work, put her in a small cradle, rock her to sleep with my foot.” Coworker Lisa, experienced mother of two, laughingly tells him he has no idea what he is talking about. Being childless, I serve as the audience for this banter.

When the phone rings at the office and it’s Jack at the hospital telling me his daughter has arrived, I offer hearty congratulations and tell him not to worry, things at work are going smoothly. He thanks me, pauses, then says, “…this is already a lot harder than I thought it would be.” Biting down my laughter, I tell him he’ll find a way, then after he hangs up call Lisa to let her know what he told me. Her laughter is anything but restrained.

“Can’t wait to hear it when they’ve completed it.”

Other comments are more voluble, positive and negative. Mine, as with the vast majority of my message board posts, are just there.

Backtracking.

2001 so far seems a bit like a continuation of 2000 but there have been notable changes big and small. On an overarching level there’s a new president and while I am fairly suspicious of him it’s still early days yet (on an automatic level I assume he’s up to no good but this ties in further with my overall suspicion of power perpetuating itself in any number of forms, and is hardly limited to him).

Notably, Brian, one of my two closest friends has moved up to Seattle. I am admittedly saddened but that’s just me, and within a short period of time it’s plenty clear that the move was exactly the right step he needed to take, as all of us who know him see a really great person become even more self-confident, loving life to the full. Other roommates come in to the house, including Oly, fellow attender of last year’s Kid A show.

I am still in love and planning another visit to the UK in the summer, on the heels of a great holiday visit from her to Carmel up north. We’ve now met each other’s parents and everyone’s gotten along very well. My folks have been in Carmel now for six years and my dad’s still enjoying teaching at a local school, while my sis has been in San Francisco for a couple of years and has found her place to be in life. All the various moves are good excuses to go on visits up and down the coast, and increasingly I’m planning more elaborate trips and vacations, a travel bug that’s long been dormant in the nineties starting to come to the fore.

Musically speaking it’s been a great spring, partially heralded by the fact that Tom Ewing, planning a different project, has asked me to take over editorship of Freaky Trigger temporarily, something I agree to with gusto, and proceed to quietly oversee for the rest of the year. A few weeks before the appearance of Amnesiac two of my favorite bands release an album on the same day. Depeche Mode‘s Exciter is a delicately poised album that pleases me greatly (but few others) while Tool‘s Lateralus goes to the top of the charts in a heap, and I proceed to live inside it for months at a time. It’s actually this album which makes me the huge fan I am and prompts an essay in FT on it, with a couple of opening paragraphs summing up my state of mind about things in the musical sphere. It includes one slightly dark part that in later months and years I will look at with increasing disquiet.

For all that, and for all the fact that I do know that charts aren’t everything, I’m still frustrated by the fact that during the late spring the number one album selling all-around, despite all this activity and Radiohead’s own number two chart debut, is an album by Staind. STAIND?

Oh well, at least it isn’t Creed.

It’s late August 2001 and for the first time ever I’ve gone to see a show at the Hollywood Bowl. It’s a bit smaller than I expected.

I think part of me was used to that classic Warner Bros. cartoon where Bugs Bunny outwits the opera singer and eventually causes the entire Bowl to collapse. Nothing so dramatic here but the way “The National Anthem” once again starts the show is even more insanely powerful than last year, so I wouldn’t have been surprised if that had caused a collapse in its own right.

Part of me was also used to the Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl film, and later on in the show the band introduce “Paranoid Android” by saying it was a salute to them as the only other British group to have ever performed at the Bowl. Not true — the Beatles had famously appeared there, among others (including Morrissey!) — but it makes for a good story. It’s a warm summer night and everything feels pretty well perfect. The hill rising behind the Bowl adds to the backdrop of the place and it’s all clear why the Bowl is here to start with.

The place is of course packed. Same rush for tickets as for last year but this place is rather larger than the Greek Theatre and there had been a bigger tour, so I wasn’t worried about the entire Western United States descending on the place. Friend Ben and I have gone this time around and we’re off to the side a bit about half to two-thirds of the way back. It’s a great show (again reconfirmed as I type this by an even better bootleg recording than the Greek Theatre one I have), and by now I’m not surprised that it is so great. Three shows in three years’ time I’ve attended and each seems to have been a clear step forward and up.

They’d already played a slew of the Amnesiac songs last time through and now with everyone knowing what they are the reactions are more immediate as opposed to ‘well that was interesting.’ Old favorites are again welcomed with a roar but the Kid A numbers are well received too. The atmosphere is different from 1998′s focused reverence and 2000′s near-hysteria, everyone and everything feels a bit lighter all around.

It’s been a brilliant summer for me. Another wonderful trip to the UK concluded, including the first legendary Trig Brother event, and while things seemed a touch more brittle at points between her and myself during that time I had come back in a good enough mood in a trip that covered everything from a Scottish wedding to trips to the Isle of Skye and Paris (including a tour through Pere Lachaise, where I contemplate Oscar Wilde’s grave for a while, nearly step on Edith Piaf’s by accident, and am amused by the clearly bored and disgusted security guard wishing to hell all the people leaving memorabilia at Jim Morrison’s grave would just go away). On the way back timing allows me to meet up with nearly all of my family to see my cousin get married in New York City; the reception, at a restaurant atop a hotel near the UN Building, is a smash success. The Manhattan skyline when I arrive at JFK Airport for this event is vivid, as it is later in the afternoon and the descending sun is starting to backlight many of the buildings, familiar shapes in many cases.

Thanks to equally good timing, I’m back in LA to catch not only Radiohead but Depeche Mode and Tool in concert at their respective shows in the area, the latter at a small outdoor arena date in San Diego at the end of an initial tour before the big arena one. Suffice to say I’m on cloud nine and then some, and Radiohead’s date completes the trifecta. The Beta Band opened, my second and last time seeing them (and a good show it is), Kid Koala has fun in between the sets, and then Radiohead are off and it’s a show and a half, followed by encore after encore. Even some obscurities come out, like “Pearly*,” definitely one for the fans. (As has been the case for the past few years now, “Creep” remains resolutely untouched; regardless of however anyone else in the audience feels I’m happy to do without it, so long as “Fake Plastic Trees” is played [it is].)

For the final encore, the third, Thom comes out alone and after a brief introduction plays a definite rarity — “True Love Waits,” a song that has been played off and on over the years according to the hyperfan sites but which has been unreleased in studio format (as of this writing, still the case). It’s a barbed-but-heartfelt love song, lyrically speaking at least, but the performance is stellar, showing that if they just wanted to play big acoustic stadium ballads that they could, or at least Thom could.

Earlier in the encores, Thom says to the audience, “Hands up, who likes New York?…They have power, water…” The song being introduced is “Lucky.”

I leave feeling pretty good about things.

Structured. Fractured.

This at one time was my rather glib description of Amnesiac, done in reference to an album that made me think of the same tensions, Simple Minds’ second effort Reel to Real Cacophony. One could say it meant something that Radiohead took five albums to get to where Simple Minds did in two; then again, their paths seems to have mirrored each other, then reversed. From there, Simple Minds got into clean, propulsive, sleek motorik songs, then into shuddering anthems, then into extremely professional if terribly obvious performances, and then finally became a dull bunch of no-marks doing cover versions. This kind of path in life is handy if you’re Merlin the wizard, aging backwards and all, but it strains the patience of everyone else.

And Reel to Real Cacophony, unsettlingly strange as it is still, isn’t replicated by Amnesiac. There are other goals with these songs, and if their being recorded at the same time as Kid A‘s material intertwines them by default, this isn’t a collection of rejects or a randomly scraped together compilation. It IS structured, a bit like the book on the cover, say — but it’s also frayed, spine broken, starting to fall apart. Kid A put the veneer of cool calm down on explosive tension; in Amnesiac the tension doesn’t so much burst out as seep out, an acidic flow.

“Idioteque” and its stern obsessive core beat splits and divides throughout here, where those kind of beats appear; the toybox melodies are strangled and irritated and corrupted. “More rock and roll!” it was claimed in a bout of wishful thinking by those still jonesing for the mid-nineties. They got feedback buzzing below soft tones, vocals that slurred and purred, time shifts that weren’t familiar. “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” crackles with static and compression, a ‘soft’ break here and there. “I Might Be Wrong” has a growling lope to it that was “The National Anthem”‘s twangy cousin, seemingly calmer but not really, as dedicated to the rhythm as nearly everything else around it, as the sudden stop/break made clear, a forlorn coda.

The irritation in some — not all, by any means, but some — corners was swift. “Packt Like Sardines In a Crushd Tin Box” isn’t supposed to start an album! Why even “Everything In Its Right Place” felt like an album starter! (How quickly the ‘experimental’ album became a new standard — “Morning Bell/Amnesiac” threw the earlier version into sharp contrast, slightly accelerated, a gauzy haunted house, sweetly sick.) “Hunting Bears” was barely a skeletal guitar, “Like Spinning Plates” twisted loops and tones — not ‘real’ songs, surely. (Never mind, say, how Thom’s voice and the radio-signal string tones turn the latter into one of the band’s most underrated, ghostly ballads.)

The songs that ‘felt’ like Radiohead weren’t, if you assumed Radiohead only sounded one way. “You and Whose Army?” was some moody late-night 1959 number on crumbling tape turned sweepingly dramatic, “Dollars and Cents” even more so, lush and shrill and dank, rich with sound. Then there’s “Life in A Glasshouse,” with Actual Jazz Guy Humphrey Lyttleton and other performers, New Orleans Dixieland drunker than Tom Waits‘s dreams, never once sloppy (anything but).

There had been questions and perhaps complaints about there being no singles from Kid A. Radiohead shrugged and gave people “Pyramid Song,” which was a big epic building rock ballad led by piano. “Karma Police” this was not. There were also screeching atonal howls, a time signature which sounded ‘abnormal’ but wasn’t, orchestrations that touched on Egyptian orchestral arrangements, and other things which inverted the intent of “Paranoid Android,” turning multipart composition into iconic core melody that got kicked out from underneath it even as the superstructure grew more grand. “Knives Out” was more straightforward, Thom’s voice clearer and more conventionally keening, but aimed for contemplative understatement throughout, a descending slow slide of a melody, other vocal parts smearing themselves carefully in the background.

I find it a bit hard to talk about Amnesiac easily, casually. It’s the closest thing to a Radiohead album after its first that I respect rather than love, but it’s a respect that is well earned. A different me would have locked into its sound and approach more immediately. As it is I stare wide-eyed.

Some weeks after the show, after having left some messages over that time that I’ve not heard back on, I get a call from London. It’s over. In retrospect it is not surprising. At the time I’m quietly devastated. I place some calls, get some friends together, try and put a brave face on it, get people to indulge with me in some comfort viewing of the brilliantly over the top kung-fu parody Fong Sai Yuk, one of Jet Li‘s greatest triumphs.

A couple of days later something else happens. My self-pity disappears, or perhaps more accurately is shifted away for a while, though it later appears more destructively some months later. After I get home that day I turn off the TV in my room where one of the housemates has been parked and ask him to give me privacy. I resolve never to intentionally watch TV news coverage again. This proves to be one of my best decisions.

Thank you, YouTube:

“You and Whose Army” at Rock AM Ring:

“Dollars and Cents” at Pinkpop:

“Life in a Glasshouse” on the BBC:

“Pyramid Song” in Paris:

“Knives Out” on Jools Holland:

“Packt Like Sardines In a Crushd Tin Box” at Rock AM Ring:

And as a special bonus, the entire Paris 2001 TV broadcast, bits of which I’ve been excerpting over the last two blogs:

Tracklist:

Morning Bell
National Anthem
You and Whose Army
Pactd Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box
Dollars and Cents
How to Disappear Completely
I Might Be Wrong
Knives Out
In Limbo
Pyramid Song
Idioteque
Everything In Its Right Place
Motion Picture Soundtrack

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