Radiohead in some senses feel like they’ve reached completion. Their journey to realization can be charted through each release, each era. In Rainbows saw them tempering out the weirder, agitated Kid A-through-Hail to the Thief era; and The King of Limbs was the beautiful coda, the compilation of Radiohead’s — or should I say Thom Yorke’s — struggle to define two inclusive subjects: identity and physicality. Indeed, Radiohead’s reputation had/have preceded them. It has become a Form hovering over them. From the state of having found their footing in Pablo Honey, to the epiphany in which they grasped their position within the genre and scope of media on The Bends, and to the frustration and feeling at odds with the commodity-money-commodity status that they had reached on OK Computer, they (Thom) began to look elsewhere for inspiration, wondering beyond the material and attempting to access the celestial. This flirtation with truth (of self and of one’s position) would lead them to the Kid A/Amnesiac era: Expressivity, the phenomenal being hopelessly shredded by the “noumenal,” churning out as an Other. Words were divorced from the form, transcendence reached.
With this notion intact, Atoms For Peace began to shape up to be a very strange entity: Thom forging a path not separate from Radiohead, but directly for it. By sharpening himself in solo releases, his expressivity is thus sharpened. Thom’s separation from the group, having reached the point of sublimity through the divorcing of self and the iconographic, meant that he was done with collaboration: he had been found. We can therefore assume that Atoms For Peace are an extension of Thom’s intent and expressivity, the backing members — which include Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich and Flea — more like constituents, assistants to Thom re-realizing said intent and expressivity. Thom’s issues with self-image has led him to seek a mode of distance, a sort of sublimity through submersion. Although Thom’s voice is clearer and more upfront than it has been in years, he is still being pulled apart by the limbs; we can clearly see him shouldering the weight of it all this time around.
And now we have AMOK, the fatal push/pull of influence, pedigree, and compromise, which leads to a full-though derivative work falling back on genre tropes and the members’ own autonomic output. Opening track “Before Your Very Eyes” starts familiarly with the shuffled rhythms that pervaded King of Limbs; this is soon interrupted — texturally — by Flea’s bassline: expressivity infected. Although the song builds to an utterly transcendent close, I still find myself aware of the exposed pieces. “Default” merges better, riding on a A Made Up Sound/2562-esque broken beat; Thom soars and recovers, but only on the back of his own intentions and influences.
Indeed, the theme of this work is not the integration, but the infecting of influences and mechanical dexterity. The entire album wreaks of meditation and reflection. The evidence for this can be found in the ontology and narrative of the project: AMOK was written and recorded in three days with Thom’s friends and Joey Waronker of R.E.M. as drummer. This itself sets up to be a meditation on momentous output, poetic immediacy, and the struggling of influence (having R.E.M.’s drummer) and churning out in spite of that. It is quite a clever idea. To transcend the self, the influence and the reputation, you must be a situationist and mold to your surroundings and state of being. So, future garage, Flea on trumpet (a meme in and of itself), Jeff Buckley’s ghost: they are all imposed on Thom and he fights through the thick of it as a way to validate his reputation, his celebrity.
Most of AMOK feel like meditations on Thom’s own history filtered through simplicity, thus becoming genre- or niche-focused. The Form of genre is explored quite a bit through Atoms For Peace’s jam sessions, but genre for the group is a malleable thing, dependent on the function, causal relationship to, and the versatility of it. With this project, Thom must work to cover himself to leave himself. Radiohead as a Form is something that he has to feed into. The album shifts toward physicality on the final two tracks (“Reverse Running” and “AMOK”), participating with the form of jazz: marginalizing the voice, focusing more on agitated rhythms, meditations of that which (or who) created and asserted the song itself. This has always been Thom’s strength. People have fallen back on the idea of Radiohead’s (Thom’s) electronic explorations as being derivative of, say, Aphex Twin or Autechre, but it is Thom’s ethereal presence that allows it to become something else; it asserts a sort of authorial voice, a causer. Value is found in the essence, the unwavering intent of the artist, not the commodity or idealizing of their identity. AMOK might be a weaker, meeker product than the output of Radiohead, but its compact nature, its genre codes, and its context are what’s important here. AMOK sums up Thom Yorke as he stands to today, and we will see what he has learned when he returns to Radiohead.