Luck and lyrics that capped the Zeitgeist's ass made Radiohead's "Creep" the summer radio hit of 1993. The song initially stifled in the band's native England, where the pained introspection of its "I'm a creep/I'm a weirdo" refrain collided with the glib irony of the London Suede and other codifiers of pop taste. Even Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood hated the tune, and his sputtering guitar – a neural misfire signaling the final explosion of singer Thom E. Yorke's constipated synapses – was attempted murder. Nonetheless, "Creep," which buoyed the otherwise unspectacular debut Pablo Honey, bull's-eyed our national inferiority complex and left Radiohead and James the last great U.K. hopes for America's brass ring.
Radiohead's reach may fall short with The Bends, a sonically ambitious album that offers no easy hits. It's a guitar field day, blending acoustic strumming with twitches of fuzzy tremolo and eruptions of amplified paranoia. Only Catherine Wheel's riptide of swollen six strings approximates the crosscurrents of chittering noise that slither through these dozen numbers. And as with Catherine Wheel, Greenwood and co-guitarist Ed O'Brien's devout allegiance to pop steers them clear of the wall of bombast that Sonic Youth perfected and that countless bands have flogged into cliché.
Yet pop allure also trips up The Bends. Yorke is so enamored of singing honeyed melodies that he dilutes the sting of his acid tongue. In "High and Dry," whose title is spun into one of the album's best hooks, Yorke gently sashays through the lines "Drying up in conversation/You will be the one who cannot talk/All your insides fall to pieces/You just sit there wishing you could still make love." There's no hint in his presentation of the poison such abject isolation secretes. Elsewhere, oblique lyrics – an English inclination – erode the power of Yorke's decayed emotions, especially in a song like "Bones," whose big tiffs and swaying bass otherwise bellow for airplay.
"Creep" whacked Americans because its message was unfiltered. That's what we've come to expect of our contemporary rock heroes, from Kurt and Courtney to Tori Amos. Which doesn't mean The Bends won't grab that brass ring. But it'll be a difficult stretch.