Atoms for Peace should be a dream team. Led by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, the band is composed of Red Hot Chili Peppers’ bassist Flea, Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, and versatile percussionists Mauro Refosco and Joey Waronker. With such a musically talented line-up it’s hard to imagine them doing anything wrong. Well, sure, it’s true they don’t do anything wrong, but that’s the least of the band’s concern. Like I said, Atoms for peace should be a supergroup, but what they seem to be is an average collection of exceptional musicians.
That’s not to say the music they put together for AMOK is bad, but it just doesn’t live up to the expectations that such a collection of musicians set. The biggest problem here is that Yorke and Godrich take center stage, and so the best tracks, like “Judge Jury and Executioner” are the ones that sound most like classic Radiohead tracks. There just doesn’t seem like much room was left for the other musicians involved, and one begins to wonder why they were involved to begin with.
Sure, the bass lines are good, but I can’t imagine many people saying “Thank God Flea was there to play that!” It just all seems a bit irrelevant. And at its heart, irrelevance is AMOK‘s greatest weakness. Everything is there, but it just feels patronizing. Nothing elicits any deep emotion, because everything seems at least once removed. Yorke’s lyrics and melodies are much more insecure than they would be on a full-fledged Radiohead album, so we have the king of emotion and intelligence sounding, at the most flattering, bored. Godrich’s production feels out of place without the other Radiohead musicians, so his usually ground-breaking musicianship sounds little more than mildly intriguing.
Usually, Thom Yorke makes me ask some of the most profound questions that art can produce. But with AMOK, all I seem to be asking is “why?” Why did these seemingly random musicians come together? Why couldn’t this have been a simple jam session? But, most importantly, why did you make this? It’s understandable that Yorke is potentially attempting to break out of the pigeon hole that the decade’s overanalyzes of Radiohead has carved out, but it’s hard not to see this departure from one of the greatest bands of all time as a flee from greatness. Sure, Yorke is a great musician, one of the greatest there is, but AMOK proves that without the rest of Radiohead, much of his potential goes wasted.
2007 had a similar release to AMOK, with the self-titled debut from Damon Albarn led The Good, The Bad, and The Queen. But a key difference between the two alums is that Albarn had already been a solo artist for years by the time The Good, The Bad, and The Queen was released. There was no questioning his potential or intentions, because Blur was far behind him, and with Gorillaz and his own solo work, he had proven that he had made a versatile voice of his own. But that’s not the case with AMOK. As long as Radiohead exists, it’s simply unable to listen to Yorke’s solo or collaborative work without comparing it to his work with Radiohead. Perhaps it’s unfair to judge Yorke’s solo work with his work in a group, and maybe tying him to Radiohead means he couldn’t make a voice of his own if he wanted to. But that’s the price you pay for leading the most critically acclaimed band of the past fifteen years. It means that the world of music looks at you differently. It means that if you want to change, you’re going to have to work for it. And it means that if you release an album like AMOK, good but not great isn’t going to be good enough.