From Radiohead's ambient lessons on "How to Disappear Completely" to Sigur Ros's sonic cocoons, hiding out within music has become hip again. Like punk, retreating behind ambient-influenced walls of sound seems to cycle in and out with the economy -- remember the British shoegazers of the early nineties? -- and the hipsters who withdrew to their bedrooms to the hypnotic noise of bands like A.R. Kane and My Bloody Valentine seem to be ready for its return.
With its somnambulant textures and piercing sense of loneliness, Radiohead's Kid A made agoraphobia compelling, but just eight months later, the band's follow-up, Amnesiac, is too tentative and slight to be genuinely moving. The band doesn't even do much to pull the album -- recorded at the same time as Kid A -- out of its predecessor's misanthropic shadow. "I'm a reasonable man, get off my case," frontman Thom Yorke mumbles impassively on the album's opener, "Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box." In the process, he sums up the group's antisocial, emotionally hollow stance.
Throughout the album, beautiful moments peek in and out -- the jazzy timbre of "Pyramid Song," the vacuumlike sound effects on "Like Spinning Plates," the swelling, melancholic piano arrangements of "You and Whose Army?" Too often, though, Amnesiac's sound isn't ambitious so much as just elliptical: The churning, tumbling percussion of "Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors" and the twangy guitar loops of "I Might Be Wrong" come off as throwaway ambient wallpaper.
Radiohead's sprawling themes and high-concept visual style have earned the group comparisons to prog rockers like Pink Floyd, but Amnesiac has more in common with tunnel-visioned electronica subgenres like IDM (intelligent dance music) that provide their audiences with tasteful but ultimately predictable listening.
Great art often involves confrontation, as Björk proved two weeks ago during a beautiful performance at Riverside Church in New York, where she allowed her unamplified voice to echo through a tiny chapel. For now, Radiohead seems content to hide behind their swirling soundscapes. In doing so, they risk turning their epic alienation into a comfortably downcast niche.