I don’t know how it took this long for me to get to Radiohead on this blog*, but I figure it’s time to correct that error. I got into the band through a back door, actually, starting with Thom Yorke’s The Eraser, and then moving straight on to the polarizing Kid A, mostly interested in their electronic stuff and ability to use their studio as another instrument. I eventually branched out to either side of their discography, but always held fast as that era being their best and most creative. Why, then, does The Bends‘ album closer, “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”, have by far the most listens on my iTunes? The Bends was the band’s second album and showed them on their way up in the mid-90s, a guitar-laden cornerstone of the Britrock scene of that era, in among Pulp, Blur, Oasis and others and a prelude to the monolith that would become of OK, Computer. Why is is that on a quiet walk home, “Street Spirit” is my go-to song and not “Everything In Its Right Place”?
It’s perhaps their most clear precis on the sheer urban paranoia that is a throughline in much of their work, but usually presented in a much more cryptic way. Here, Yorke croons about “rows of houses/bearing down on me”. Here’s something you can easily connect to – there’s no imagery stand-ins. It’s just what’s around you. No need to make up something else to fear when you you’ve got houses right there, especially as he struggles to get the words out to anyone: “This machine will/will not communicate/the thoughts and the strain I’m under.” In contrast to the paranoia, Yorke calls on a camaraderie that may not exist, but that he must believe in to deal with the concrete prison around him: “All these things into position/all these things we’ll one day swallow whole.”
Honestly, though, it would be difficult to put anything but the main riff/picking pattern at the center of this song, with the descending A minor pattern pulling you down with every iteration. The chords change, but the pattern never does – no matter how you twist and turn, it gets you every time, creating a web over the whole song. Even when the song takes off at the end, and the synths soar, and the mumbled coda of “immerse your soul in love” reaches out of the darkness, it’s still lying underneath before everything drops out again, and you’re left what you started with.
Despite the bleakness of the whole affair, it continually scratches an itch I have whenever I’m not listening to a new or barely-remembered album – I can throw it on almost any time and immediately get into it. The atmosphere is full realized and it never breaks out of the initial mood it puts you into. The vocals and melody are quite strong and the performances are a fairly light touch for Radiohead, but delicately placed where they need to be. A single vision, no matter hopeless, makes for a powerful song.
*I am a person with a music blog, of course I like Radiohead.