The following is a summary of our 1st substantial meeting (1/26/10):
We [note: not "we" in the sense of ambiguously inclusive journalistic pronoun, but rather we as in The Pennds team, with Steve leading this discussion] began with an examination of two articles - one from Spin magazine "debunking" the Radiohead myth, the other a categorically mawkish Pitchfork review of Kid A (read to induce vomiting). These two pieces serve as relative bookends on the spectrum of critical response that Radiohead's work can garner. The Spin piece, while it does point out the obvious fact that Radiohead is often over-hyped, makes empty criticisms and is largely inaccurate - fault-finding for fault-finding's sake. Radiohead often evokes this response because of their notoriously standoffish attitudes (particularly towards journalists), and one should avoid taking it too seriously. On the other hand, PF's Kid A review is laughable. While the web-zine is famous for its cluttered and oblique reviews (stuffed with self-fulfilling name drops and obscure musical references, making their pieces inaccessible to the common music fan), this one is unhelpful for the opposite reason - the author drops the pretense and actually gushes. Avoid this as you would avoid directionless "debunking", because its syrupy crap. Between these two articles lies a continuum of reaction to Radiohead's work.
Next to address is what formative elements influenced Radiohead, and how these show through on their earlier albums. As Steve pointed out, the story is "more than a bit cliched": Art-school kids, some of them bullied, all of them capricious and musically inclined, the attentive teacher who gets them safe passage through the cruel, testosterone-driven world of the young adult male grade school experience. The alienation inherent in their childhoods is perhaps the most consistent theme throughout their entire body of work, particularly their early stuff, and for that reason a lot of it is rather childish. Pablo Honey is rife with obtuse and inane metaphors and lyrics (from the sun, moon and stars to goofy Jim Morrison references...). Musically, Pablo Honey is straightforward. It's catchy and well-framed, but contained in typical rock structures. Nothing too dangerous about the song "Creep", with its reserved verse and crunchy chorus that sounds like just about everything else that was popular on the radio in 1993. Influences are not well hidden - most songs are immediately redolent of either The Pixies, The Smiths, U2 or R.E.M. Still, there are moments of prescience: "Blow Out", the closing track of Pablo Honey, provides a look towards the future - a wall of paranoiac guitar noise with a backbone of smooth bass and jazzy percussion.
With The Bends Radiohead began their maturation process, taking a more subtle approach in nearly every regard. Emotions are veiled in cryptic and insidious lyrics. The music is less chunky and metallic, a bit more spacious and warm. The result is an unsettling combination - like walking through a seedy part of town on a nice day. By taking a less direct approach, the band successfully transitions from the formless angst of teenage boys to the lingering malaise of disaffected young men. The Bends centers about a slow-burning, debilitating pressure in the midst of our modern culture of synthesized happiness - even the album artwork (a graphic hybridization of Thom Yorke and a crash test dummy, locked in what could just as easily be a whip-lashed grimace as an expression of lascivious pleasure) speaks to this brilliantly sculpted contrast.
But why the transition? Why not just pump out another "Creep", do another big tour and rake in the cash? The answer, for the most part, lies in the title of the sophomore album. "The Bends" is a slang term for the condition that occurs when deep-sea divers rise too quickly to the surface, without allowing their bodies to decompress. This sudden change in external pressure causes bubbles to form in the blood stream - very painful. The album title comes from Thom's feeling that he was not able to decompress when he returned home from touring - emerging too quickly from the pressures of sudden fame caused him anxiety to the point of physical illness. This anxiety soon took the form of disillusionment, and depending on what you read, sometimes what appears like disgust towards their first album.
But rather than let this disillusionment be their demise, they used it to drive a reformation. There is no better evidence for this than the song "My Iron Lung" - a bitingly sarcastic attack at "Creep", the very song that made them famous ("this this is our new song / just like the last one / a total waste of time/ my iron lung"). But it is in this irony that Radiohead was reborn - by revolting against the album that made them, they established the protocol that would make them one of our generation's most influential bands. They started a cycle of burning themselves down and rising anew from the ash of their previous work, their trademark to this day.
Still, don't miss the true motive. This was not disillusionment with fame - that would be too cliche, even for a young Thom Yorke naive enough to dye his hair bleach blonde. It was a wholehearted attempt to reverse the misconceptions - they didn't want to be "those Creep guys" anymore. Pablo Honey was essentially a "Best Hits" album of all of their work up to that point (they say you get twenty years to make your first album, and two for your second). Every track is a time capsule of different moments from their angsty teenage lives. Even if it was released in 1993, "Creep" probably retained sentiments from more than 5 years prior. And don't we all wish by the time we're 25 that we could erase most of what crept forth from the jumble of our late teenage years?