About The Pennds

The Pennds is: Jared Rosenberg, Steve Waye, Andrew Bielen & Charlie Isaacs.

Mission Statement: The Pennds explores Radiohead from an academic perspective. We go beyond notions of active listening in favor of involved perception, in order to better understand the band's work. We do not assign superlatives; in fact we challenge those that exist. Using the framework of discourse, we aim not to pin down the essence of Radiohead, but rather to set free that concept, to give it pliable spirit.

Special Thanks to Al Filreis for making this (and so much more) possible.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Trapdoors and Mosquito Traps: Where's the Fire?

A note to begin:

I know we're saving the artwork discussion for another day, but looking at the artwork for Kid A and Amnesiac is, I feel, radically important. Please take a few minutes to look and reflect.

While these albums are criticized for being "too cerebral," I have found the reality to be quite the opposite: the worlds that are depicted in these soundscapes are so vast, and so terrifying, that they require the entirety of your being to fully engage. I would encourage you to spend an hour at least to simply sit and listen distracted by nothing but your imagination (and perhaps the artwork and lyrics). Attempt to actively engage these albums and populate your psyche with the universe depicted therein. While I don't mean to be overly dramatic, the experience for me is beautiful, disturbing, awful (emphasis on AWE), and above all, profoundly NEW. Often dark and deeply unsettling, but always alien and unique. How many things in the world can you really say that about? For me, not many.

If you have the time and cash I would strongly encourage you to buy the physical CD so you can take a look. These images, particularly in those found in the Kid A booklet, affected me deeply when I first saw them as a kid and continue to today. Pay particular attention to the jumbled, nihilistic asides in the Kid A booklet.


"If you look at the artwork for Kid A...well, that´s looking at the fire from afar. Amnesiac is the sound of what it feels like to be standing in the fire"
- Thom Yorke: The Big Issue*, Jan 2001

Much of the discussion this Friday will focus on the relationship of the two albums. Should they be thought of as Kid A and Kid B? Does each have an individual identity, and can either album stand alone? Is Amnesiac simply a collection of Kid A throwaways?

My thoughts are that everything Radiohead does is painstakingly deliberate artistically, and they would never try to pass off a collection of B-sides as an album just to try and cash in on their outtakes. The band has more or less stated as much in interviews anyway. But since they (Kid A and Amnesiac) were both recorded in the same session, I think we still have to view the two as companion albums; albeit companion albums with a careful design, the pair fitting together like puzzle pieces.

I've always liked that above quote, despite (or perhaps due to) its obscurity. Isn't this, after all, what we all found so enticing about OK Computer's lyrical approach in comparison to Thom's earlier writing, the way it collages meaning instead of scrawling it in a diary with schoolgirlish vulnerability? Kid A and Amnesiac deal with the mythical tomes of Icarus and Prometheus, the tribal dance, the kids singing songs around a campfire, a city razed and burning: what happens when people play with fire? How does it feel to look from afar and not feel the heat? How does it feel to be up in flames, feeling and seeing nothing but fire all around you?

Kid A, like OK Computer, is quite voyeuristic. Thom sets the stage: "there are two colours in my head." Thom sees the world for all its contradictions; he points the lens and spares the commentary. Order in chaos. Hope in fear. Everything in nothing. On "How to Disappear Completely" he can walk through walls, go everywhere, see everything, while occupying no time, no space. Why is it so unsettling when we hear him talk about everything in its right place? Shouldn't that be reassuring, as much so as being "fitter, happier, and more productive?" The album reveals the biggest lie - we, as humans, love the fundamental shortcut of addressing problems with positive labels; inoculating the disease with euphemisms, even naming it as an asset. If (pulling lyrics from the album) women and children lying in bunkers, children being cut in half, cheap sex and sleeping pills are a portrait of everything existing in its right place, then God help us. That lemon we're sucking on is the notion that modern anxiety is not an anomaly, it's the rising bile that we try to suppress with ignorance - ears stuffed closed, eyes wide shut. See you in the next life.

With Amnesiac, Thom is the insect drawn towards the light. We are not watching the evening news, we are living on the edge of the earthquake in the alien nation. We are trying to put everything in its right place; but in "Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box" it is revealed that "we are looking in the wrong place." The lens shifts and now we are placed squarely in the midst of the horror. We are reasonable men, and we want to be left alone, but we can't ignore the bitter taste of the lemon in our mouths.

There is an obession on the album with irredeemabilitly. It is a response to Jesus' omnipresence in the psychology of the Western world. Is the idea of a next life just a way to navigate through the swamp of the one we currently occupy, a proverbial light at the end of the tunnel? Are there trapdoors we can't come back from? If we are washed down the waterfall, lost at sea, is there a way back out?

When I reach the end of this album, however, I always feel oddly uplifted. "There are weapons we can use," Thom croons on Dollars and Sense, "be constructive with your blues." It's possible to read this ironically, but I get the impression that Thom is being fairly oblique here. If we are stuck here, burning, why doesn't someone go grab a bucket of water?

I am always inspired by these albums to get off my ass and be part of the solution. Radiohead has always done us the courtesy of being truthful, and the truth is that on a dark planet, dark things happen. Led by the Virgilesque/Pied Piper figure presented in "Kid A" I am brought, like Dante, through the depths of hell with a fortified soul and a hatred of evil, no longer tripped up by little white lies.


*Read about "The Big Issue" here. Pertinent to our discussion on Radiohead's social conscience.


  1. Steve - brilliant. You really nail the contrasts Thom et al. create on Kid A and Amnesiac. Just a couple of things... first, isn't the track called Dollars & Cents (not Sense)? Second, do you think the "two colors" are Kid A and Amnesiac? They are definitely of different character. Finally, I find it interesting that you are uplifted at the end of Amnesiac. Life in a Glass House is bitter, and ends with uncertainty ("is someone listening in?"). Still, its less depressing than the angelic harps of Kid A's closer Motion Picture Soundtrack and the line "I'll see you in the next life".

  2. You nailed the difference between Kid A and Amnesiac on the head as seeing the "fire" from afar and being in the midst of it; however, I do agree with Jared in terms of the ending of Amnesiac. Life in A Glass House is being in the dead center of the "fire" and there is no escaping. Everything done is easily visible; however hope is still present unlike the end of Kid A as Jared also notes. I have a quote from Colin which describes the relationship between the two perfectly which I'll share on Friday. This is a phenomenal start though.

  3. Heres the quote:

    “I’m not sure they are two records. We had that group of songs [Kid A] make one record, and the other ones are left over. We had, say, 23 songs and we wanted to have around 47 minutes of music for [Kid A], so we chose the best combination out of that number and the rest are waiting on the bench, waiting to be picked up for the next team line-up. Amnesiac is more conventional perhaps, but also more dissonant. But it continues on from Kid A. It was all done in the same recording period. It is all a whole” –Colin

  4. When I say I feel "oddly uplifted," I mean oddly in that considering the bleakness and violence of the whole album, "Life in a Glass House" especially, there is a reaching out of sorts - Thom insists on the vulnerability of our positions in the glass houses we build for ourselves. We shield ourselves with these false constructs, niceties, banal conversations, etc. so we don't have to think about what's going on. Maybe it's not that novel of an idea, but they are recognizing that of all the terrible forces in the world, the final and most deadly is inertia. This is what they are attacking, and it resonates with me. Perhaps uplifting is the wrong word.

    Also, Jared you're right - it's Dollars and Cents. Apparently the band doesn't share my affinity for lame puns.

  5. Sorry, I mean "isn't the right word"

  6. An interesting thought I had upon reading this post is the momentum behind this chilling shot to the world with Kid A. Kid A criticizes the structured, "everything in it's place" existence, and as such, we discover that the conventions of rock music are just as deleterious as the world Kid A AS WELL AS those conventional yet lyrically revolting rock songs appear to criticize. So Kid A has that energy of catapulting everything we feel about any other band that seeks to utter the same message.

    Also, I am sure other music groups have accomplished what Kid A accomplishes, but not with the advantage Radiohead has of beginning from the conventions, accomplishing the widespread applause and following of listeners, and ONLY THEN unveiling the message. Had Radiohead began their career with Kid A, I believe we would not be here in this class because it would have been the same old "Blast to the system of music" tale. Kid A utilizes the authority and capital Radiohead has accumulated.

    Steve, I suppose one thing to consider about the uplifting feeling you have with Amnesiac is the fact that Life in a Glass House is a song recorded/written after the release of Kid A. It's not one of the songs recorded with Kid A. So, the ending of Amnesiac is reflective of the great experiment. The lyrics are reflective and echo time and past with growing resolve, "Once again..." being the appositive at the end of the song.