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The Poisoned and Mortal Wound of the Civilised World
Radiohead: The Bends
One morning a few weeks ago, listening to the radio while getting dressed for work (though, really, this is probably the most annoying time of day for radio, unless for some reason you prefer traffic to music), a little moment of falsetto in the song they were playing caught my attention. I have a serious weakness for little falsetto jumps, and this song had a captivating one, right as the singer says "fake pla-a-stic earth". The whole song, in fact, was pretty nice, something like a less self-conscious Robyn Hitchcock singing over music that went from a quiet Sarah McLachlan-esque acoustic guitar and organ to a surging electric orchestral grandeur that you might get out of Buffalo Tom if you transformed them from a trio into a nine-piece using judicious cloning.
The song was "Fake Plastic Trees", by Radiohead, and I promptly bought the album. Still, I didn't expect much from it. I'd despised "Creep", perhaps because it came out too close to Beck's "Loser", which I hated even more. Despite some concerted effort, I just haven't managed to get into the current Suede-Oasis-Blur-Pulp run of English bands at all, and my fear was that Radiohead over the course of anything longer than an isolated note would turn out to leave me just as ambivalent. And so I was very pleasantly surprised to find myself completely floored by The Bends. That falsetto hitch in "Fake Plastic Trees" may still be my favorite moment, but the album as a whole is uninterruptedly spectacular, and easily one of the best I've heard this year.
Musically, the idea of a tripled Buffalo Tom isn't totally misleading, as the band has three guitarists, and most songs get their drive from this reckless layering. In the quiet parts, though, Radiohead substitute a distinctly British heritage for Buffalo Tom's humble simplicity. If you can imagine Suede with the Bowie-an camp extracted, or Oasis bled of most of their roots Stones swagger, so that what's left is more musical style than attitude, then you have something like what I hear of them in Radiohead. It's melodic ambition, perhaps, an awareness of the artistic potential of a pop song, and, too, a certain arch reserve. Deliverance through control.
The animating characteristic of Radiohead's music for me, however, isn't the instrumentation at all, it's Thom Yorke's unearthly voice. It continues to remind me of Robyn Hitchcock's at times, but where Robyn's is clipped and almost invariably ironic, Thom's is expansive and elegant. When he launches into a chorus he can slide from note to note like a slow-motion eagle circling snow-capped mountains in an endless National Geographic nature special, and I want the moment where it finally plunges to decapitate an unsuspecting owl to never come. (Okay, maybe it wasn't an owl. Come to think of it, what eats owls? Bears?) Lyrically, Radiohead's songs rarely seem like much on paper, but in song the words get transformed into mysteriously potent images. When sung, "Blame it on the black star, / Blame it on the falling sky, / Blame it on the satellite" sounds incredible, but in print it looks cliched and largely meaningless. This doesn't devalue the songs, it just serves as a reminder that you can't always take an art work apart and expect the pieces to make individual sense the way my mechanics seemed to feel like the bits of my car did, especially the ones they decided needed to be replaced.
The album opens with the precise, ruminative drums of "Planet Telex". The guitar noise surges howlingly around Thom's voice, which on this song seems to be heard through something brittle and buzzy, perhaps like some partially torn wax paper, or a dried marzipan telephone. The amount of unattached white noise in this song makes it seem more like an introduction than a piece in its own right, to me. The album proper, then, feels like it begins with track two, "The Bends". Here Thom puts voice to a proper melody, the guitars set to clashing supportively around him, and the magic begins to sparkle auspiciously. The song reminds me more than a little of Smashing Pumpkins, but where Billy Corgan's arrangements usually seem indistinct to me, and I find his voice irritating, Radiohead manage to keep the towering guitar growths from tangling up in detail-less bracken, and Yorke's clear singing never gets lost against the backgrounds.
They mix moods well, too. "High and Dry" begins (with the intriguing line "Two jumps in a week. / I bet you think that's pretty clever, / Don't you, boy?") with a gently strummed acoustic guitar, ticking rim shots and a kettle-drum sounding bass drum, and just wisps of feedback from the other guitars swirling unobtrusively in the background. By the chorus (where the predictable "Don't leave me high / Don't leave me dry" turns into high art somewhere between Thom's brain and his incisors), some bass support has wandered in, and the other guitarists have arrived without you noticing, like mirrorshaded hitmen materializing out of the shadows on a bad episode of Wiseguys.
"Fake Plastic Trees", next, is one of the few songs here whose lyrics seem to me to stand up on their own. Such details as "A town full of rubber plans / To get rid of itself", and "He used to do surgery / For girls in the Eighties, / But gravity always wins", for some reason, remind me invariably of the scene in Grand Canyon where Mary-Louise Parker's character is staring in bleak depression off the balcony of her tiny high-rise apartment (a sort of modern cliff-dwelling, which is appropriate to the film's canyon theme), and it seems like she's become a helpless atom in some huge unknowable social molecule, totally insignificant and powerless, but yet able to watch the world spinning below her, though I can't decide whether this makes things better or worse.
The intensity gets kicked up again for the raging "Bones", which contains my favorite rock lyric use of Peter Pan since Kate Bush's. It drops down again for the airy "(Nice Dream)", which begins to turn ugly as morning approaches, but turns out to be basically benign. A trace of retro glam groove then slips into "Just", whose guitar jam conclusion I'd be inclined to complain about if it turned out to be a regular feature, which it doesn't. "My Iron Lung", next, is actually a song appearing here as a return engagement from a single last year, but it fits in perfectly, its disgust with modernity and semi-psychedelic guitar lines wholly in character for the album.
The meandering, whooshy "Bullet Proof...I Wish I Was" strikes me as another interlude, included more for album pacing than for its own virtues. I forgive this, though, as it leads into the spellbinding "Black Star", possibly the song here with the best claim on timeless classicity. The way Thom's voice seems to hang, unsupported, against the torrent of guitars in the chorus, reminds me (and, I suspect, only me) of Soundgarden's "The Day I Tried to Live". Bits of this song remind me of both the Pretenders' "2000 Miles" and Bowie's "Ziggy Stardust", but in an attentive way, not a derivative one. "Sulk", next, is nearly as good, with Yorke sounding just a touch like Unforgettable Fire-era Bono.
The album eases out, as it eased in, with "Street Spirit (Fade Out)", a song that isn't bad, but definitely sounds like exit music, though it actually doesn't, as the title would imply, fade. My attention, held firmly captive throughout, is finally released to go about its domestic errands, humming quietly to itself. Blame it on the black star...
Manic Street Preachers: The Holy Bible
I'd been putting off reviewing Radiohead, honestly, because every time I sat down to try to write about it I just started babbling incoherently about how great it was. (Perhaps you feel that I've done this even now.) So I delayed for a couple weeks, hoping that I'd cool on it at least enough to be able to string together grammatical sentences with few enough claims for the album's immortality to preserve whatever still passes for my critical credibility.
Last night, though, the situation changed drastically. Georgia, my soon-to-be-ex girlfriend (and no, I don't intend to go into that here), returned yesterday from a trip to London, on which she had kindly agreed to take a short list of my import CD needs around to meet the major London music sources. This exercise yielded several significant items that will make appearances in these pages in the coming weeks, but the disc that elicited the biggest outpouring of gratefulness from me as she theatrically removed it from a Tower Records bag was this one. A 1994 UK release, this album was supposed to come out in the US back in March, but the untimely and unexplained disappearance of guitarist Richey James (from the very Severn bridge that Marillion's suicide-or-not concept album Brave took place on), which made a supporting US tour somewhat impractical, seems to have cooled Sony US's enthusiasms for promoting the band, and at this point I'm not sure it'll ever come out here.
Meanwhile, I've been trying repeatedly, and unsuccessfully, to order it from my usual import sources. This was making me very unhappy. The Manic Street Preachers are one of my very favorite discoveries of the last five years (with only Del Amitri and Tori Amos giving them serious competition). In fact, up until James' disappearance threw the use of the word "working" into question, I might have been heard to claim that they were the best rock band working. Their debut album, Generation Terrorists, was blisteringly vitriolic, the follow-up, Gold Against the Soul, was staggeringly assured, and along the way they've amassed a b-side output that would shame most bands' greatest-hits. The idea that they had another album, and I hadn't heard it, was torture to me. They're profoundly unstable, though, and so I'd been anticipating this album with some real fear that it would find them having snapped and decided that as revenge on some unspecified establishment for unitemized wrongs, they would make totally unlistenable discord until further notice.
They haven't. Two songs into the album, I knew that I would be able to contain my enthusiasm for Radiohead now.
There are three things that I feel make the Manic Street Preachers almost peerless in one interpretation of the term "rock". First, they write and play absolutely killer rock songs. To me they make Guns 'n' Roses and Bon Jovi sound like backing bands on TV commercials for artificial infants that wet themselves on voice command. Big guitars, crashing drums, throbbing bass and wailing vocals, all integrated with a punk intensity that makes big-haired American metal bands seem choreographed with all the grace and power of a Nutcracker Suite performed by chubby, easily-distracted eight-year-olds in nylon-net tutus. Imagine if the Sex Pistols had spent the last two decades learning to play their instruments, and letting their anger build up, and then, just when they were good and ready, had their brains transplanted into the bodies of the Alarm. That's what the Manic Street Preachers sound like to me.
Second, their lyrics are nearly without peer. "Anarchy in the UK" and "God Save the Queen" are polite Parliamentary rebuttals compared to the twisted rage, pointed denunciations and sometimes surprising sensitivity and/or deranged lunacy that run through MSP songs. Past subjects have included the British banking industry as social euthanasists, AIDS as an invented disease, the lack of positive role models for girls (a song that features guest vocals by Traci Lords), rock-and-roll idol worship as zombie mind control, Western democracy as zombie mind control, institutional religion as zombie mind control, the PMRC as the festering soul of white America revealed, maturity as surrender, life as a loveless prison (and, conversely, love as a lifeless prison), the sensory deadness that leads to drug abuse, the sensory deadness produced by hospitals and sympathy, nostalgia as the defanging of the past, Tourette's Syndrome and, for a cheerful change of pace, the unbridled willful hypocrisy of just about everybody and everything. On the block this time around are anorexia as the inevitable mixture of self-abuse and commercial-induced appearance-delusions, the death of beauty, video god-making, progress as destruction, political correctness as moral whitewash (or zombie mind control, for the MSP traditionalist...), the indistinguishability of Hitler and Churchill, the wish to die during a rare happy moment, the essential cruelty of society, the sexual failings of great communist leaders, and the self-explanatory "If White America Told the Truth for One Day It's World Would Fall Apart" (spaces inserted by me). This stuff is bleak like California falling in the ocean would be "newsworthy", carefully thought out even where it's borderline delusional, and intricately and articulately phrased. If you've ever been hit in the head by a crowbar that had a large amount of Nietzsche inscribed upon it, the experience of listening to MSP lyrics will be a familiar one for you.
The third thing that distinguishes the band for me is the way that their music and the lyrics combine. In a somewhat unusual arrangement, Richey James and bassist Nicky Wire write all the lyrics, while singer/guitarist James Dean Bradfield and drummer Sean Moore write the music. This arrangement results in lyrics whose textual rhythms almost never have the slightest thing to do with the meter of the music they must be fit into. Bradfield sings them almost phonetically, as if he's mindlessly plugging the syllables on the lyric sheet into notes he had already decided on, adding random elongations to syllables whenever things don't quite fit. This is an amazingly strange thing to hear, but it has more significance than mere novelty, as it means that the lyrics to MSP songs sneak up on you. The songs are catchy, and you find yourself singing along, mouthing half-understood and usually half-wrong phrases cheerfully, caught up in the energy of the music. Only later, many repetitions later, when you start to get curious about what, exactly, it is that you're singing loudly in public, and pull out the liner for some clarification, do you find that you've been chirping some mangled variant of what is actually supposed to be "pass the prozac designer amnesiac", "fuck the Brady Bill", or perhaps "death sanitised through credit". This not only makes these songs disarmingly insidious, it also keeps them from seeming overtly preachy, which is quite a remarkable accomplishment given the band's total disdain for subtlety or tact in the actual texts.
All that said, there remains the question of how this, the band's third album, actually is. It's brutal. The other two albums were brutal, too, but with the first one it was possible to overlook the brutality by concentrating on the raw punk energy, and with the second one you could overlook it by focusing on the elegant rock songcraft. This one leaves you no easy distractions. The music is gut-wrenchingly abrasive and unrelievedly intense, cruelly straightforward and unrelenting. There are no ballads to luxuriate in, no catchy sing-alongs to latch onto. Instead, there is nearly an hour of a musical experience not entirely unlike alternately getting the shit kicked out of you by gangs of jack-boot-wearing fascist thugs and then having hippies repeatedly run over you with their rattling flower-painted Vanagons, divided into thirteen discrete track segments. This isn't to say that the songwriting isn't brilliant, just that it was sometimes possible on the band's earlier work for the music to act as temporary shelter from the band's battering intent, and here that escape route seems to have been sealed off. From the confrontational cover (an arresting painted triptych of views of an enormously obese woman on the front, and a long world-disgusted quotation from Octave Mirbeau's The Torture Garden on the back) to the last dialog sample, the closest this album comes to letting up is the "Sony Music" emblem embossed in the corner of the jewel case cover. That a multinational megalith so plainly culpable should consent to release this album is either a dazzling ray of hope for humanity surviving its corporate future, or else the final sign of the coming apocalypse. And while I insist it might be either, if Sony finally gets its act together and releases The Holy Bible in the US, I'm stocking up on canned goods and candles.
I hope Richey is okay, and comes back, and the band makes more albums. But, frankly, if I made an album like this, and the world heard it and didn't immediately unravel as a result, jumping off a bridge would be high on my list of appropriate responses. If this album doesn't change the world, we are forced to confront the painful possibility that no album would. Then again, maybe it's my fault: I had the volume down a little too low. There, I've turned it up. Let's play it again, and see what happens this time.
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