Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Rocktober: Where We're Going is Downhill from Here

Where do we go? Where do we go now?
Where do we go from here?

If you have a rock band and want your best musical days to remain ahead of you, these are bad questions to ask. Guns ‘n’ Roses began to weaken the minute Axl Rose began to believe the claims of his genius, which was the minute their debut went Platinum. Radiohead began to weaken the minute Thom Yorke decided that the way to stanch the bleeding of his soul was to delve further into the mystery of humans increasingly disconnecting from one another.

Some people say OK Computer was Radiohead’s masterpiece, and maybe in one sense it was, but it not only killed Radiohead’s desire to make accessible music, but it arguably fired the first shot in the firing squad that killed rock as a means of mainstream music expression altogether. (Yeah, I’ve griped about Radiohead before.)

A few years ago, loyal reader John passed along to us an article praising “Sweet Child o’ Mine” as a defining song for the time and generation, praising GnR for being geniuses and this song as their pinnacle of songwriting brilliance. I’m not positive this was the article, but it’s close enough. However brilliant “SCoM” is -- and it’s a pretty gosh darn amazing rock song -- “The Bends” mines similar thematic territory with better songwriting and orchestration.

"SCoM" is about finding yourself trapped in a world that has lost its innocence; "The Bends" is about finding yourself trapped in your own miserable and lost self:
I need to wash myself again
To hide all the dirt and pain
'Cause I'd be scared that there's nothing underneath
The former is a lament to what we can’t control; the latter laments what we think we can… but still probably can’t… which is what goes on between our ears, the synapses firing, the chemicals releasing, the feelings bubbling.

Axl sings of a girl, and of nice and pretty days, long gone. He sings of warm safe places replaced with thunder and rain. Thom sings of addiction, separation, and the feeling of powerlessness to control your own mood, your own destiny:
I'm just lying in a bar with my drip feed on
Talking to my girlfriend
Waiting for something to happen
And I wish it was the 60s,
I wish I could be happy, I wish, I wish, I wish
That something would happen
Where “SCoM” is yearning and melancholy, “The Bends” is desperation, a sadness on the edge of madness. Both songs come to their emotional climax through a crescendo of electric guitars. Slash takes an increasingly up-tempo, increasingly frenetic chord-by-chord journey into the abyss of wailing guitar, each note plucked, hectic but precise. In “The Bends,” while a two guitars crunch out the foundation, the lead wails a few plaitive notes here and there. It is the musical version of the scene from A-Ha’s “Take On Me” video where the sketched version of the guy is pounding desperately against the walls of his animated prison, trying to break out.

Where Axl keeps asking the same question, hoping it might eventually answer itself, Thom Yorke pleads alongside that guitar:
I wanna live, breathe
I wanna be part of the human race
The climax to “The Bends” gives me goosebumps every time I hear it. My breath staggers. I feel the desperation, the pain, the loneliness, and that tiny fading glimmer of hope. I hear it and feel it every single time.

Unfortunately, while A-Ha manages to escape (metaphorically, I mean, from crappy animation), I’m not sure Radiohead ever did. They remained trapped in a computerized and distant, friendless universe, unsure of how to return.

I can’t ever express it enough, the line Radiohead found between brilliance and accessibility for that fleeting stretch of early ‘90s, a line they could have mined for many albums and made me a full-fledged fan along the way. Instead they went inaccessibly weird and required their fans to pretend they were musical codebreakers to enjoy the journey.

Dammit, Radiohead, the correct answer to the question, “Where do we go from here?” was actually “Don’t go too far, because you’re right at home.” Instead, they found a place where the words came out all weird.

1 comment:

Thomas Dillow said...

Nice post! Exit Music! That's where we go after the Bends.