Radiohead - The Bends
AS END of the millennium psychosis fills the air, so attempts to rewrite history become ever more blatant. You can see it in the proliferation of 'Director's Cuts' at the cinema. You can see it in the rash of warts-and-all autobiographies from politicians, attempting to reconstruct the myth before someone else does it for them. And you can see it in this album's naked ambition.
See, since their fair-to-middling debut 'Pablo Honey', Radiohead have clearly enlisted the services of Mystic Meg as some sort of spiritual advisor. And when they demanded to know how their entry in The Complete History of 20th Century Indie Rock (published 2001) might read, Meg informed them that it simply said, "Nice blokes from Oxford. Had a hit with that 'Creep' song."
And Radiohead clearly resolved to make an album so stunning it would make people forget their own name, never mind that albatross-like 45. And, by George, I think they've done it! Because there are really only two words for this album. The first is epic, because every song here is imbued with an incredible sense of grandeur. Where once Radiohead songs sneaked in through a back entrance, nearly all of 'The Bends' kicks down the front door, gets off with the best-looking girl in the room, leaps onto a table top and declares, with a mighty roar: "I am something very special indeed". And it has a point.
And, if that sounds in line with current accepted wisdom on the 'Head' (that they are "the new U2", just in case this is the first magazine you've read in 12 months) well, it isn't supposed to. True, a couple of tracks - the vitriolic bluster of 'Just' and the lighters-aloft smooch of "Bullet Proof ... I Wish I Was' - are a mere inch away from stadium rock. But, as with the mere inch that nowadays separates Labour and Conservative policy, it's a vital inch: room enough for Radiohead to do things Bono wouldn't dare dream about.
Jonny Greenwood frequently turns the very concept of The Great Guitar Riff upside down and inside out. Thom Yorke's ghostly falsetto attains heights of emotion practically unheard of in this irony-infested age. Ugly swathes of feedback are thrown over pretty pop melodies and touching weepies are scabbed with the most caustic lyrics this side of 'The Holy Bible', Radiohead, in short, take risks and are therefore still a great deal more us than them. Good.
Make no mistake: 'The Bends' will be one of, and quite possibly the indie rock albums of the year - with equal emphasis on indie and rock. Which means that - despite the fact that its tone of bleak outsiderdom is eons away from Blur's chirpy mateyness - it's actually this year's 'Parklife'. As with Albarn's finest hour, almost every track here is a potentially huge hit single, yet as a whole the album presents a coherent, all-pervading worldview. And, as with 'Parklife', 'The Bends' should set an "unfashionable" band in a completely different light and catapult them to megastardom. The other word for this album, by the way, is classic.
But if 'Parklife' summed up mid-'90s Britain perfectly - and, let's face it, it did - then this is the consummate, all-encompassing, continent-straddling '90s rock record - 'Parklife Plus One', if you like. Radiohead are looking way, way beyond Brit awards and rehabilitating Fred Perry fashion. Listening to an unutterably gorgeous torch song like 'Fake Plastic Trees', a full-tilt angstfest like 'The Bends', or 'My Iron Lung' - a cross between the two - you can't help but think, if this record doesn't attain the sort of success that makes Pearl Jam look like Ruptured Dog we might just as well give up and stay down the Bull & Gate forever.
True, Thom Yorke's lyrics ("They're the ones who'll hate you when you think you've got the world all sussed out" and, "When the power runs out, we'll just hum/This is our new song, just like the last one" plus plenty more where they just came from) suggest that his hitherto mild brush with global stardom has left him with nothing but antipathy for the tortured generation spokesman status that comes with the territory. But then the likes of 'Fake Plastic Trees' and 'Black Star' show he actually cares very little for much in this miserable little century, full stop. No matter. When those history books are written, the feeling will not be mutual.
Creep? Creep who?