Years ago, the Radiohead train pulled into my station and I didn’t get on. I scoffed as the train went by. The truth is that Radiohead has never done much for me, and the wild praise they reap has done them no favors with this listener. When critics push “OK Computer” (1997) on me, I push back.
That being said, I know there’s some genius in Thom Yorke, Radiohead’s beguiling frontman. After all, he wrote “Fake Plastic Trees,” one of alternative nation’s finest anthems. His solo debut, “The Eraser,” (2006) found him exploring glitchy, homespun beats and socially conscious lyrics. “Atoms For Peace” is the sixth song on that album, and also the name of Yorke’s new supergroup starring, among others, Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers and Nigel Godrich, Radiohead’s superstar producer and “sixth member.”
Having a full band works in Yorke’s favor. In almost every way, “AMOK” is superior to “The Eraser.” The songs are looser, more organic and less indebted to Yorke’s laptop. It makes sense that “AMOK” was born from jam sessions with Atoms for Peace’s members contributing to the songs in their own styles. Surprisingly, remarkably, “AMOK”’s MVP is Flea. I thought he couldn’t redeem himself after “Hey Oh, Listen What I Say Oh.” Shows what I know. He abandons his usual slap bass technique in favor of clear, driving bass lines. On “AMOK” single and highlight, “Judge Jury and Executioner,” it’s his repeating lick that keeps the song moving forward, building toward fury, tense as wire.
For years, Yorke’s worn his love for electronic music on his sleeve. In 2011 he cut his teeth as a DJ, dropping Aphex Twin, Zomby and Flying Lotus into his buzzed-about sets. He’s clearly influenced by dance music’s repetition, and on “AMOK”’s best song, the opener “Before Your Very Eyes…,” he channels “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts,”(1981) the landmark collaboration album between David Byrne and Brian Eno. The ominous mood of “AMOK” isn’t much different from that of dubstep’s greatest document, Burial’s “Untrue” (2007).
What’s missing from “AMOK” is diversity and melody. Atoms for Peace have built an album out of variations on one theme. It seems that Yorke doesn’t want to be melodic. He uses his trademark falsetto as an instrument for texture. He drifts in and out and on top of the music, offering little in the way of tunefulness. Atoms for Peace can be catchy, but as a vocalist, Yorke rarely is. “Dropped” is proof of that.
Yorke’s a talented lyricist — or so say his hordes of fans — but since I can’t latch onto his melodies, I don’t care about what he has to say. The album’s nadir is its closer and title track, the monotonous “Amok.” The whole band seems lost, and Yorke couches his obtuse lyrics in an aimless vocal performance. He’d be well-served in revisiting “Fake Plastic Trees.”
Still, there’s enough here for me to keep coming back. “Ingenue” is a solid track rendered even solider by its music video. The chorus on “Default” reminds me of, of all things, Wendy Carlos’ “A Clockwork Orange” soundtrack. “Reverse Running” is pure fun. Time will tell whether Atoms for Peace become a headline or footnote in Thom Yorke’s storied career. For decades, Radiohead’s loomed over his every move. I wonder if he sometimes wishes it weren’t so. And I wonder how often listeners finish “AMOK” and immediately reach for “Kid A” (2000), because that’s what I’m about to do. The Radiohead train’s pulling into my station. Here I go, wish me luck!