ATOMS FOR PEACE
The Wire, February 2013
by Simon Reynolds
Radiohead got their name from a Talking Heads B-side. That told you something about where they were coming from (angsty artpunk) and it helps explain where they went (Kid A as the group’s Remain In Light peak, subsequently backed away from). Atoms For Peace’s name comes from a track on Thom Yorke’s The Eraser. That also tells you something. Although widely characterised as a supergroup, Atoms isn’t a meeting of equals. It’s a Yorke solo album in disguise, the singer and Nigel Godrich (Radiohead’s producer since forever) in total control.
The scenario here is actually slightly reminiscent of Remain In Light: Byrne & Eno style, Yorke and Godrich reworked a mountain of material generated during a three-day jam session with Red Hot Chilli Peppers bassist Flea, percussionist Mauro Refosco, and drummer Joey Waronker (who’s worked with Beck). Those musicians had originally come together as the backing group for Yorke’s short US tour of The Eraser. Another Remain echo: the idea for the project hatched during a drunken evening listening to Fela Kuti at Flea’s Los Angeles home, where the muso buddies grooved on what Yorke has described as “that idea of trance-ing out.”
In ye olden days, the supergroup ideal entailed distinctive instrumental voices coming together to make sweet music at the convergence of their discrete histories. But listening to Amok, there’s absolutely no way you can tell Flea is involved (arguably just as well, given his slap-happy bass signature). Flea, Waronker and Refosco are even less discernible presences as musicians than all those prog virtuosos on Eno’s solo records forced out of their comfort zones by the balding one’s oblique strategems. Characterlessness seems to have been an end result actively sought by Godrich and Yorke during the two years of restructuring and studio-morphing they applied to the raw material generated by their content-provider pals. As Godrich told one interviewer, “one of the things we were most excited about was ending up with a record where you weren't quite sure where the human starts and the machine ends."
Once upon a time that might have been a provocative mission statement, a productive goal. The severance of musical sounds from their origin in embodied human actions, the privileging of treatments and production processes over playing: these did indeed seem like radical propositions when mooted in the early Nineties context of UK postrock outfits like Seefeel, Disco Inferno, Techno Animal. They still seemed fairly exciting and promising circa Kid A/Amnesiac in 2001. But in 2013? Virtually the entire radioscape of contemporary music is constructed on these terms, from the ProTooled illusions of modern rock to the Adorno-dystopia of AutoTune dancepop, with assorted middlebrow options (Muse, TV On the Radio, et al) in between. When the methodology is so widespread and normative, as to be unremarkable, then what radicality can really be claimed for “cyborg music”?
Sometimes the inbetween places are the most interesting zones in which to operate. But sometimes it just makes for neither fish nor fowl. Godrich, again: “This is the eternal battle with Thom. He's like 'I really want to make a dance record. But I have to sing on it, or nobody's going to fucking care." Amok, apparently, “is his compromise”. Well, exactly: you said it, Nige. The cross-purpose impulses (dance versus song, machine versus human) generate neither thrilling friction nor intriguing irresolution, but a smoothed-out stalemate. Residues of the desire to make physically involving music persist: nervous percussion passim (presumably derived from Refosco), the energetic boppy beat on “Dropped” (think Outkast’s “Hey Ya” but with a scowl). But again and again, rhythmic thrust is subdued by Yorke’s all-enveloping vocals. He is simply not a particularly rhythmic singer. His style, a sort of postpunk bel canto that owes virtually nothing to black music or even to American music, is highly original but it is suited to long aching melody lines. Draped across the music, Yorke’s harrowed croon invites you to wilt into his sonorous folds of melancholy mood-texture. Now and again on Amok he attempts a more groove-oriented, syncopated delivery, sounding almost American on “Stuck Together” and even a tiny bit like “black”-era Joni Mitchell on “Judge Jury Executioner”. The rhythms on that track suggest handclaps and fingerclicks, but thanks to overdone echo, the ultimate effect is “Anglican Gospel”.
But overall, there’s little respite from the canopied dolour of his singing. Blending into the pillowy synths, Yorke’s smudged enunciation seems to actively discourage attention to the lyrics. “Default”, the single, has the sharpest definition: there’s real crunch and sizzle to the rhythm, the hook is insidious, and certain lines snap into focus (“the will is strong/the flesh is weak”, “I avoid your gaze,” “ I’ve made my bed/I lie in it”) while remaining emotionally opaque. I’ve never fully understood the term “passive-aggressive” but that feels like it might be the place Amok is coming from. As with most of Yorke’s song writing, in Radiohead and solo, the terrain is anomie, hollowness, uncomfortable numbness, political-is-personal unease. But the place where bleak and oblique meet is over-familiar territory for him: at this point the most startling and powerful thing Yorke could do is come out and say something directly, even crudely, like the Lennon of Plastic Ono Band or even Some Time in New York City.
Ironically titled, surely (since it never does run amok; in fact it feels more like a plushly padded cell), this album is not a completely barren listen. There are plenty of good bits: the backwash of looped and processed murmurs on “Unless”, the hornet-muezzin synth part that rears up on “Reverse Running”, the melted glimmer of instrumentalized vocal on the title track. But they never quite add up. Listening, I found myself repeatedly wondering: what is this record for? You can’t dance to it. The song-structures forestall the full-blown disorientation of experimental electronic music. It doesn’t offer solace or healing resonance (the lyrics are at once private and depersonalized, stripped of concrete detail). Amok is neither one thing nor the one other, but not in a way that plays challenging havoc with categories or expectations. In the end, it’s another cautious portion of well-made, moderately-experimental not-quite-rock.