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Sour Success

Radiohead wants to prove it's more than just a "Creep"

Radiohead's Thom Yorke is a miserable sort, but so far this year no other shoe-gazing Brit has reveled in his sadness quite so beautifully -- and thoroughly -- as Yorke does on Radiohead's sophomore effort, The Bends. The band's sobering reply to its million-selling Pablo Honey -- and, more particularly, to that disc's surprise hit, "Creep," which plastered the British quintet's wan complexions all over MTV -- The Bends is a complex, tortured, hook-filled wonder.

At its center is "My Iron Lung," Yorke's in-a-nutshell summation of the drawbacks of (almost) instant fame. "This is our new song / Just like the last one / A total waste of time," Yorke grumbles in its final verse, following a series of chiming, Byrds-ish guitar notes. Bitter stuff, but also dramatic when measured against the swarm of distortion that periodically breaks up the tune's melancholy. Yorke precedes any condescending notions with a first-verse declaration of self-doubt: "Faith, you're driving me away / You do it every day / You don't mean it, but it hurts like hell."

These mood swings are the formula for much of The Bends: scholarly politeness and bedridden hopelessness juxtaposed with venomous outbursts worthy of the nastiest pub brawl. That's much like the personality of Yorke himself. Well-spoken and opinionated, a deceptively steel-clad frontman with a fiery stage demeanor somewhat akin to Sex Pistols-era John Lydon, Yorke chooses to confine his neuroses to private moments, and writing is one of those. Mentions of Prozac, impotence, nervous breakdowns, debilitating depressions and anxiety-ridden nightmares litter The Bends, all of it draped in an aural canopy that punctuates and feeds off of such desperation.

Airing one's insecurities in song can be liberating. But it can also, as Yorke is well aware, be debilitating, especially if it leads to an international hit that results not only in sudden fame, but also a public image that's not all that accurate. "The 'Creep' thing really shook us up," he admits. "We thought, 'This is going to kill us before we even start.'"

The tune, with its "I'm a creep, I'm a weirdo" refrain, sullen vocals and stutter-and-start guitar, is Yorke at his most self-pitying. It struck a chord among disaffected Gen Xers, selling like crazy with the help of its heavily played video, which offered a sampling of the nervous energy Radiohead can generate on-stage. The touring behind "Creep" was relentless, continuing for well over a year, until the song took on a sour life all its own. "The thing is," says Yorke, "we couldn't even approach anybody after 'Creep,' and ask to release another single, 'cause they'd just laugh." "People only knew us as that 'Creep' band," adds bassist Colin Greenwood. "You could argue that it's not even the best song on the album."

That you could, though realistically "Creep" overshadows everything else on the debut. Follow-up singles (among them the shrill "Stop Whispering") eventually came and went. The pupils had learned their lessons well, ingesting the best their British Invasion forefathers had to offer, along with the melody-driven panache of '70s glam rock and the boisterous experimentalism of their Boston-based idols, the Pixies and Dinosaur Jr., but it all seemed to amount to little more than a one-hit fluke.

"The fact that we were making some money wasn't enough for us. It didn't make up for people dismissing us," Yorke says. "Up until now, we've had this pretty peculiar path that we've walked. We were just about to make our second album when things spun out of control." Had Radiohead been allowed to do its second CD earlier, it would, says Yorke, "have shown that we were something else." But the success of "Creep" took its toll on Radiohead. There were rumors of drinking binges and breakups, as well as accusations from the press that the group, which could come off arrogant and uncooperative in interviews and media appearances, had let success go to its head. Privately, Yorke was struggling more than his public persona let on. "Psychologically, psychosomatic stuff was going with me all the time: falling down, passing out, not being able to breathe, getting terrible back pain," Yorke recalls. "It was all basically just stress."

Ultimately, according to Yorke, "the beauty of The Bends is that it ever got made." Given the two-year stretch between Pablo Honey and The Bends, not to mention the dreaded sophomore jinx that often befalls bands trying to better a successful debut, Radiohead should be thankful they've come out of it all relatively unscathed. And they are, to a point. "We learned a lot about the industry, and we're grateful for that," says Yorke, half sarcastically.

The Bends shows that Yorke took the lashings from the media to heart. On it, Radiohead churns out a song cycle reminiscent of Ziggy Stardust's rock classicism. Thematic centerpieces such as the new single "Just," as well as "My Iron Lung," "Bones," "Black Star" and the gorgeous first single, "Fake Plastic Trees," stand on their own as fully fleshed-out mini-epics, all lush with layered guitars and synthetic strings and buoyed by larger-than-life melodies. While The Bends (named after the formation of nitrogen bubbles in the blood of divers who rise to the surface too quickly) is earning Radiohead the respect of critics who've slagged the band in the past, it's hardly selling mountains -- not yet, at least. But Yorke admits that this time around he was after respect more than anything.

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