* * * 1/2
Well, OK, so they really meant it after all.
If you're just tuning in, the big debate among Radiohead fans is whether last year's abstract, electronics-dominated album "Kid A" was (a) a lamentable abdication of the band's destiny as rock's great hope, (b) a momentary tangent, or (c) an admirable pursuit of an obscure muse, platinum records and MTV be damned.
Even if you went with the last option, "Kid A's" intentions were better than its execution. It might have been meant to explore states of remoteness and emotional numbness, but in the end it simply felt remote and emotionally numb.
So why does "Amnesiac" work so well when it's made up of essentially the same components? Did Radiohead just break us in with "Kid A"? Have we finally taken the hint and stopped expecting the band to become a blockbuster blend of U2 and Pink Floyd?
Maybe a bit of both, but the bottom line is that "Amnesiac" is a richer, more engaging record, its austerity and troubled vision enriched by a rousing of the human spirit. Mechanized clatter, minimalist drum-and-bass grooves, arctic orchestrations and sound collages again form the bedrock, but Radiohead now hauls in some of its old artillery--a startling rock-blues guitar lead, grand, stately hymns, the reassuring solidity of a live drum kit, a stronger vocal presence from Thom Yorke.
Not to say that it's an upper. Radiohead continues to function as something of a psychic surveillance camera, sweeping a terrain of alienation and anomie. As the title suggests, there's a sense of groping through images and impressions in search of a shattered self, but this time the music also carries the possibility that the fragments can be reassembled.