It turns out I have heard a couple Radiohead songs, both courtesy of the Clueless soundtrack. I know, I know, we’ll get to the issue of which rock I was living under in just a minute here. When I remember the scene in which Breckin Meyer and Brittany Murphy –oh, poor Brittany Murphy– are standing in the lunch line and discussing Marvin the Martian drawings, the mental image is accompanied by the opening strains of “My Iron Lung”. Similarly, “Fake Plastic Trees” brings me back to Alicia Silverstone and Paul Rudd talking about how “dope” it would be to get some takeout for her dad. How ’90s, on all counts.
Of course, I also knew the song “Creep”, as did anyone who had a pulse in 1993. And I think I grew to hate it for the same reason the band grew to hate it: overexposure. I’m sure it made an appearance on many a mix tape compiled by a 12-year-old peer who had no idea its lyrics were about stalking. But apart from those few songs–and apart from the fact that I’ve clearly seen Clueless one too many times-–I’m a veritable Radiohead virgin.
On the other hand, it’s likely I’ve heard a number of Radiohead songs, especially if I’ve left the radio tuned to Chicago’s Q101 for more than a half hour. Here, I’ll remind myself of the argument I draw upon when people tell me they’ve never heard a single Led Zeppelin or Bob Dylan song (both have happened, by the way): “You probably know quite a few of their songs,” I tell them. “You just don’t know that you know them.” When it comes to Radiohead, then, perhaps I’m not a virgin so much as I’m “everything-but” girl.
Horrible analogies aside, it’s mostly by default that I’ve chosen Radiohead as the subject of this article. One of my students had written an essay about Radiohead, and so, in much of a “hey-that-sounds-good” spirit, I asked him which album he would recommend for this little project.
Which brings us to The Bends. I’ll say straight away that I now know why, despite the possibility that several of Radiohead’s songs are already buried within my subconscious, I’ve never become a fan: I just can’t get behind Thom Yorke’s voice. He sounds like a bit of a wienie, not to mention the fact that his voice evokes images of men who are skinnier than I am, which only makes me crabby. (I have no idea what he looks like, nor will I Google him (just to keep this fun), but I’m guessing he pulls off skinny jeans better than the hippest hipster hanging out in Chicago’s Logan Square).
I’m aware that the voice complaint is a fairly irrational prejudice. I’ve never liked Eric Clapton for the exact same reason.
The good news, though, is that I wouldn’t say Yorke’s voice necessarily grates. It just doesn’t appeal to me. And the other good news is that the music itself rocks pretty hard.
After listening to the album in its entirety several times, the first note I jotted down was “beautiful riffs.” The aforementioned opening strains of “My Iron Lung” serve as a perfect example: What an amazing hook. It’s the sort of riff that gets inside you, note by note.
The album opener, “Planet Telex”, offers a bit of a psychedelic, keyboard-heavy intro, and, from what I can tell, this song might epitomize some of Radiohead’s signature tactics: a musical slowdown at the bridge and a good deal of electric distortion. The second–and title–track earns my vote for best on the album, even though I’m not sure what “the bends” refers to. Google is telling me that this term could refer to a scuba diver having oxygen bubbles in his or her blood vessels, which would fit the theme of the lyrics.
I consider the third track, “High and Dry”, to be the second-best song on the album. Its melody is very beautiful, and the fact that I love this song says quite a bit, considering this track also serves as one of the biggest showcases for Mr. Yorke’s… gentle-sounding voice, what with its “Don’t leave me hiiiigh, don’t leave me dryyyy” chorus.
But wait just a minute. Confession here: I broke down and looked up this album’s entry on Wikipedia, and supposedly Thom Yorke said of this song, “It’s not bad … it’s very bad.” Well, whoops. Apparently this is one of the band’s more mainstream tracks, so I guess that means it’s supposed to suck. I disagree. Either way, Mr. Yorke, if I could paraphrase Ben Stiller in Reality Bites, so sorry for having stepped over some line in the sands of coolness with you. The fact that everyone likes it does not mean it inherently sucks. And hey, I’d never heard it until a few days ago. Oh, and P.S., I’m completely uncool, so it all works out.
Moving on to “Fake Plastic Trees”, I must say: How could you not love a song that rhymes “green plastic watering can” with “fake Chinese rubber plant?” It’s impossible. Do I know what this song is about? Not really, and I suspect Radiohead doesn’t, either. In that way, perhaps it’s their “I Am the Walrus”.
“[Nice Dream]” slows things down just a little too much for me. Moreover, if it weren’t for knowing the song title, I would have had no idea what Yorke was singing in the chorus. Again, it’s that wimpy voice–not so bothersome on some songs, wholly annoying on others. On that note, a friend informed me that Yorke sounds different on this album from all of the band’s other records. Maybe I’ll research this assertion for myself in the future.
The opening of “Just” contains some simple plucks on the guitar leading into a heavier hook, creating an infectious groove. And what can be said about “My Iron Lung”? I’ve already talked about the opening arpeggio. Layering that with an increasingly urgent drum, the arrangement is just lovely. Too bad the song devolves into intentional confusion about two-thirds in. It takes away from what was built so promisingly in the opening two-thirds, rendering the track only about 66%-awesome. At least the noise always gives way to that sexy riff once again.
“Bullet Proof … I Wish I Was”, for me, somehow evokes thoughts of The Doors’ brand of black magic. The final track, “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”, contains a hardcore arpeggio, one that fits the song’s overall tone of longing. Seriously, I’m becoming a little obsessed with the guy who’s plucking out all those sounds.
Am I going to become a follower of Radiohead? It’s not likely. Will I queue up The Bends in future party mixes and listen to it while grading papers? Absolutely. And will I declare that I’m not worthy of guitarist Jonny Greenwood if I ever meet him? You know it.
Artist admiration sans devotion is akin to your relationship with that one high-school acquaintance: You probably won’t call her up and ask her to hang this weekend, but you’ll gladly be her lab partner in Monday’s chemistry class.