Whenever someone disses agnosticism as pointless, bleak, or weak, Radiohead’s 2001 song “I Might Be Wrong” starts playing in my head. A guitar riff conveys all the tension of a bar that’s about to erupt into a brawl. Thom Yorke sings, in his meekest mumble, “I used to think there was no future left at all.” That’s an unsurprising confession from a notoriously gloomy bandleader, but it’s paired with tentatively happy lines such as this: “I could have sworn I saw a light coming on.” Eventually, Jonny Greenwood’s ominous riff gives way to a tender, consoling strum, and you may feel moved to cry.
Yorke has said that he wrote “I Might Be Wrong” during a period of personal crisis, after he glimpsed a figure in the windows of his house when he knew it to be empty. It’s possible, too, that the song references the philosopher Bertrand Russell, who famously said he would never die for his beliefs, because he “may be wrong.” Russell often criticized how righteous certainty can lead to war. Yorke sings about shaking off the certainty of despair that can make people give up on themselves. Doubt—the suspicion that the reality you perceive is not all there is—can save lives.
Pop music is, at its core, an art of hopefulness. Heavy metal gazes into the abyss, and hip-hop builds on a bedrock of realism, but pop typically requires a delirious commitment to what the Beatles said: Love is all you need. Though its image is dark and scholarly, Radiohead shares that commitment—even if the band works hard to complicate it. The crude salvation of an airbag, the dying beauty of rainbows, the numb joy of sleep: These are the sources of hope in Radiohead songs, and the bleaker the backdrop, the richer the affirmation. That’s why Amnesiac, the strange and divisive album that contains “I Might Be Wrong,” may be the band’s best work. Listening to it 20 years after its release, the album’s grumpy wisdom—its dignity in the face of dread—feels more moving than ever.
In 2000, Radiohead shocked the music world by ditching the dreamy rock of 1997’s OK Computer for the electronic tinkering of Kid A. With chilly soundscapes that tended to heat up over the course of a song, Kid A brilliantly captured a sense of mounting panic—panic caused by climate change, atomic weapons, and simply being around other humans. It was only the start of the band’s most successfully adventurous period. In 2001, 11 more songs from the same recording sessions that birthed Kid A were released as Amnesiac. Discordant horns, off-kilter rhythms, and a three-minute burst of industrial techno made a mockery of rumors that Radiohead would return to ’90s rock. The album felt even more inscrutable than Kid A—but diehards soon came to realize that it contained some of Radiohead’s best songs.
The opener, “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box,” is one of them. It wanders in with a metallic clanging that evokes an object knocking around in a car trunk, or a nagging thought in someone’s skull. Keyboards add a calming neutrality as Yorke begins describing a character who, after a life of Job-like patience, does not receive his long-expected payoff. Maybe that payoff was going to heaven. Maybe it was earning a promotion. Whatever it was supposed to be, it turned out to be nothing. Which leaves the character feeling … what? “As your life flashed before your eyes,” Yorke sings, before his band imitates an MRI scanner—bleeping, whirring, judging. There’s a mild sense of build, and a yet-milder sense of deflation.
A song like this might seem cruel. Yorke is, in the way of many philosophy-rock dudes before him, describing someone who was just another brick in the wall. But that brick has a defense to make: “I’m a reasonable man, get off my case,” goes Yorke’s chorus, delivered with a surly tremble. If the song had been released on OK Computer, the band members would have blasted out some cathartic chords during that chorus. Instead, they vamp and fidget, offering no comfort. Yet as Yorke repeats “get off my case” again and again, it’s like he’s waving a torch in a cave of bats. So you’ve not gotten what you want. So you’re living with the same sense of disappointment that most human beings carry. So you’re Eleanor Rigby; so you’re a nowhere man. So what?
“Packt” is the decoder for Amnesiac, and make no mistake: Radiohead wanted to be decoded. Early-2000s Yorke sometimes wrote lyrics by drawing phrases out of a hat—but that cut-and-paste method, despite how it’s sometimes talked about, did not make his songs all nonsense. Good Radiohead tracks have the force of a well-made argument, and with Amnesiac the band demanded a hearing. After Kid A rolled out without singles or many interviews, Amnesiac arrived with music videos and magazine features. Addressing the widespread allegation that he had set out to stump listeners, Yorke told Mojo, “The mystery is not intended … The whole point of making music is to get something across.”
Even when considered purely as sound, Amnesiac tells a distinctive story. In contrast with the surgical glint of Kid A, this album’s arrangements sound swampy and foggy, while maintaining a kind of conceptual crispness. You can classify the track list with phrases such as the one with music playing backwards, the gorgeous piano ballad that swings, and the creepy New Orleans freak-out. Uneasy chords and rhythms—many inspired by jazz—create suspense in every measure, counterintuitively replicating a hallmark of pop. Listening to the album feels like paging through a waterlogged photo book documenting individual lives—lives unfolding amid the broader civilizational nightmare described by Kid A.
You can think of Yorke’s characters as, well, amnesiacs. They’re each trying to ignore or forget something in order to carry on. “Pyramid Song” dreams of an afterlife where there’s “nothing to fear and nothing to doubt”; the pugnacious narrator of “You and Whose Army?” gives off a delusional sense of invulnerability; “Life in a Glasshouse” describes a celebrity who papers her windows to block out the paparazzi. Some of Amnesiac’s loveliest songs contain sick images—bloated corpses on “Knives Out,” a mutilation on “Like Spinning Plates”—but they are described through a dissociative haze, the same haze you might experience when scanning grim headlines, or perhaps while muddling through life during a pandemic.
This is not exactly heartwarming material. You have to be in a certain mood to enjoy the way the beats pulverize the vocals of “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors.” It takes imagination to find life in the instrumental “Hunting Bears,” on which the sound of fingers on guitar strings evokes scampering, frightened critters. Only after years of hitting Skip did I make peace with “Morning Bell/Amnesiac,” which turns a Kid A highlight (“Morning Bell”) into an ugly Christmas carol. The Kid A version plays like a terse horror film, but Amnesiac is all about the banality of haunting—a blend of coziness and nausea.
The jumpy heart of Amnesiac, and maybe Radiohead’s career, lies in the song “Dollars and Cents,” a five-minute symphony that was cut down from an 11-minute jam session inspired by the hypnotic ’70s subgenre of krautrock. Moving with serpentine menace, violins trace Yorke’s vocal line as he sings about capitalism absorbing and commodifying any critique leveled against it. His condemnation of society, and even of entertainment, seems total. Yet as the song heaves with the same lovable frenzy as bebop or punk rock, you hear an artist risking compromise—with his culture, with his listener, with his misery—in order to connect. “Be constructive with your blues,” Yorke sings with a sneer, knowing he’s done just that, and as well as anyone ever has.