OK Computer led off with “Airbag,” five minutes of pure magic, the bridge to the chorus a great tidal wave of melody, Yorke’s soaring voice sewing hope and rage together at full tilt so that the stitches didn’t show; its chorus was “In an interstellar burst/I am back to save the universe.” Amnesiac’s opening retreats from the listener as soon as it starts. It’s a rippling heavy-effects drum-machine-and-keyboard affair called “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box,” and its lyrics depict a completely barren interior landscape with such audible familiarity that one can only conclude either that Thom Yorke is a genius, or that he’s in some serious emotional trouble. Here they are:

After years of waiting, nothing came
As your life flashed before your eyes
you realize
I’m a reasonable man, get off my case

That’s about it, really. There’s one other phrase dropped in later (just after the first repetition of “you realize,” Yorke either finishes the line or drops in a phrase that’s not at all related to anything else, and either case is wholly plausible: “You’re looking in the wrong place”), but it’s as spare as a Rothko canvas, and almost as rich. The catchy, skittering rhythms of synthetic high-toms ping-pong across the song’s high end while a legato four-note progression slides along underneath and a second and then a third vocal track compete for the same attention which the words being sung are attempting to deflect. “Get off, get off, get off my case,” he says, not raising his voice much, sounding not enraged but smolderingly angry. The chord changes, when they come, feel like moments out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie: you dread what’s coming for so long that it feels like a big relief when it finally comes. The stereo separation is so careful, the panning so clearly thought through at every turn, that one gets the same chilly rush that analog synths used to deliver when they were great novelties: you feel like you’ve awakened sometime in the near future without anybody to tell you how you’re supposed to feel. Yorke’s delivery of the vocal is by turns clipped and languid, his phrasings sounding both painstakingly wrought and off-the-cuff. It’s hardly even a song; it’s a breath of bitter anger strung out across a trebly wire and dangled in the air in the hopes that somebody trips over it.

>> next