CD of the week: Radiohead: Amnesiac

After last year's musical tantrum, Radiohead are back on top form, says Alex Petridis

Radiohead Amnesiac
(Parlophone) ****
Buy it at a discount at BOL

The more cynical rock fan may find it hard to supress a snigger while perusing this week's singles chart. Radiohead's much-trumpeted new single, their first in four years, a beautiful, intricately-wrought mesh of complex time signatures, keening vocals, elegiac strings and subtly disturbing audio effects called Pyramid Song, has been beaten to number one by Do You Really Like It?, by DJ Pied Piper and the Master of Ceremonies - perhaps the most unrepentantly stupid dance record since Jive Bunny hung up his tracksuit. Radiohead's high seriousness has been upstaged by a record that is everything they are not: catchy, commercial and a bit of a laugh.

For some - including many of the fans who voted OK Computer the greatest album ever made in a 1998 poll - it must seem a fitting irony. There's a fine line between challenging your audience's preconceptions and petulantly blowing raspberries at them, a line that Radiohead seemed perfectly prepared to walk, without the safety net of melody, on last year's Kid A. For an album that was audibly in a dreadful tizzy about the state of the world, OK Computer's long-awaited follow-up managed to sound enormously pleased with itself. Tracks like the free jazz squawk of The National Anthem and the discordant electronica of Motion Picture Soundtrack were self-conciously awkward and bloody-minded, the noise made by a band trying so hard to make a "difficult" album that they felt it beneath them to write any songs.

If Kid A was intended as an exercise in audience alienation - a charge the band deny - it certainly worked. The album has so far shifted 310,000 copies, hardly a disaster, but less than a third of OK Computer's sales. Expectations for its swift follow-up, comprised of tracks recorded at the same ill-tempered sessions, have been understandably mixed. Its appearance, however, should be greeted with something approaching relief. Amnesiac succeeds by marshalling Kid A's more recherché influences - jazz and the subdued techno of Autechre and Boards of Canada - giving them a sense of place and purpose lacking in its predecessor.

Both albums open with an excursion into ambient techno. Where Kid A's Everything in Its Right Place was a messy and inconsequential doodle, Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box is sharp, articulate and riven with paranoia, a subject lead singer and conspiracy theorist Thom Yorke, who recently implied he was the subject of MI5 surveillance, is well-qualified to discuss. The closing track Life in a Glass House, featuring octogenarian trumpeter Humphrey Lyttleton, is quite breathtaking, a grotesque New Orleans funeral march that sleazily explodes into life around its chorus. "Of course I'd like to sit around and chat, but someone's listening in," drawls Yorke.

It's easy to mock Radiohead's hand-wringing, brow-furrowing view of the world as a dystopia rendered hopeless by capitalism and the encroaching menace of globalism. After all, Radiohead are multi-millionaires - one member even made this year's list of the 100 richest people in Britain - and their records railing against multi-national corporations are released by EMI, a multi-national corporation. Yet it's hard to be unaffected by Yorke's troubled lyrics. Frequently obscured by electronic effects and Yorke's unconventional vocal techniques, they're fragmentary by default and design, creating a landscape of horror and alienation through a series of apparently mundane images. "Where'd you park the car? Where'd you park the car?" he moans in a voice cracked with fear and despair, a man having an existential crisis by the pay-and-display machine. It's mood may be as relentlessly downcast as ever, but Amnesiac sees Radiohead drawing a vast array of sounds and influences into their woeful world. Knives Out bears the mark of the Smiths in its serpentine guitar figure; I Might Be Wrong entirely undercuts its muscular blues riffing with Yorke's high-pitched, heartbroken vocal. And as its lazy jazz chords slowly build into an epic wail, the Blair-bashing You and Whose Army? is as charming a slab of rancour as one could wish for, simultaneously puffed-up with righteous anger and utterly crushed by disappointment.

Amnesiac strikes a cunning and rewarding balance between experimentation and quality control. It's hardly easy to digest but nor is it impossible to swallow. Its lapses into self-indulgence - the grinding noise of Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors, the overlong Like Spinning Plates - are occasional and slight and massively overshadowed by its surfeit of haunting musical shifts and unconventional melodies.

Amnesiac puts Radiohead's turbulent recent history into perspective. With the benefit of hindsight, Kid A's wilful racket now recalls the clatter of a rattle being thrown from a pram. Tantrum over, Radiohead have returned to their role as the world's most intriguing and innovative major rock band.

The GuardianTramp

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