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When divers come up from the depths of the ocean too quickly, they risk getting the bends, a painful and potentially fatal condition caused by having too much nitrogen in the blood. The Bends is also the title of the second album by the English quintet Radiohead, and it serves as the perfect metaphor for their painfully rapid rise to fame following the release of "Creep," their 1993 megamonster hit. After sustaining some minor aches and pains in the three years between the release of their platinum debut, Pablo Honey (which included "Creep"), and this year's The Bends, Radiohead has taken time to decompress and now is set to jump back into the water headfirst, starting over in their quest for lasting success while trying to get away from the song that broke them in more ways than one. And they aren't diving into the shallow end, either: Tomorrow night at the Miami Arena, the band begins the U.S. leg of its tour with R.E.M.
So far on the current tour, Radiohead has performed six European dates with R.E.M., as well as a show in Denmark with Neil Young and the Miracle Band (Pearl Jam sans Eddie Vedder). The band took a break in late August to rehearse and record some B-sides and now joins R.E.M. for seventeen U.S. dates in September. (Next month they'll move on to a stint opening for Soul Asylum.)
"R.E.M. obviously only takes out bands that they like, and they seem to be genuine fans of this [new] record," says Radiohead guitarist Ed O'Brien, speaking over the phone from England. "And when we played with Neil Young, [guitarist] Stone Gossard from Pearl Jam came up and said, 'Why didn't you play "Planet Telex," that's such a great song?'"
O'Brien goes on to explain that after touring for two and a half years to support an album that they had outgrown, the band A vocalist-songwriter Thom E. Yorke, guitarists O'Brien and Jonny Greenwood, bassist Colin Greenwood, and drummer Phil Selway A are finally proving what they are capable of to their audiences. "In a way, it feels as if we're starting again," he notes. "With Pablo Honey and 'Creep,' we had a really pop album and a pop hit, but what we have now is a hard-core base of fans, people who are really into what we're doing. You've got to lay down foundations, and we weren't really able to do that with Pablo Honey; we didn't really know how many of those fans were there to see Radiohead as opposed to some of the people who came along just to hear 'Creep.'" (Among the fans the band has discovered are legions of Japanese kids, a group of whom have started a "Phil Is Great" club for the band's low-key drummer.)
Radiohead's songs communicate with sparkling clarity what would seem impossible to say simply, expressing feelings of inadequacy, shame, rage, cynicism, and sadness. While such sentiments were encapsulated especially succinctly on "Creep" ("I wish I was special . . . but I'm a creep/I'm a weirdo"), they also come through on The Bends, a collection of intricately arranged pop songs that incorporate a whimsical, Sixties-rock sensibility into a moody, modern-rock structure. For example, on the title track Yorke wonders: "Where do we go from here? Who are all my real friends? I wish it was the Sixties/I wish I could be happy....I want to be part of the human race."
Both lyrically and musically, The Bends is a much darker album than Pablo Honey, and O'Brien contends that the second album genuinely reflects what the band experienced after two and a half straight years of touring. "It's very weird to go and immediately record another album, with everyone wanting 'Creep, Part Two' or whatever," he says. "There's an immense amount of pressure on you, and for a while we did lose it because there were so many people involved and pushing us around."
Around the time the band ended their tour last year, the British press published several reports that Radiohead was on the verge of splitting up. But the band actually was going through more of a breakdown than a breakup. The relationships between Radiohead's members were beginning to strain, Yorke's health was failing, and the group had fallen into a songwriting slump. By the time they stepped into the studio with producer John Leckie to record The Bends, the band was spent, but decided to recharge by, of all things, playing live.
"We had 22 amazing songs, but the first batch of recordings was dreadful, so we had to abandon it and go out on tour, which allowed us to reaffirm our faith in the songs and our faith as a band," O'Brien asserts. "We always had this great conviction but we lost it for a while last year. We were questioning everything, and I think that's reflected in the album."
The Bends swims in an erratic ebb and flow of intense feelings, with the steady hum of longing and isolation lurking on the murky bottom. The songs soar and dip with Yorke's wide-ranging and often ethereal vocals, while Jonny Greenwood's and O'Brien's guitars carry the melodies all over the place in terms of styles and arrangements. The two tinker with Sixties psychedelia on the windswept "Planet Telex" and the "Dear Prudence"-like "My Iron Lung," which explodes in a torrent of Hendrix-ian sonics at the end. On the other hand, softly strummed acoustic guitars drive delicate melodies in "High and Dry," "Bullet Proof . . . I Wish I Was," and the bittersweet "Nice Dream." All of it is held together by bassist Greenwood's and drummer Selway's ultratight rhythm section.