Only a couple of years ago, Radiohead looked like inoffensive indie underachievers. Then they wrote a song called Creep, which you may have heard of, went supernova in America, were thoroughly bewildered by the experience and have now served up a largely enthralling epic of bitterness and doubt titled, with an endearing sledgehammer sarcasm, The Bends. In terms of your traumatised, embittered, immediately post-fame albums, it's a corker; a worthy heir to the traditions of The Byrds; Younger Than Yesterday, Elvis Costello's This Year's Model, and Nirvana's In Utero, records that tore at the flesh of the hand feeding them. Thom Yorke's interviews, likewise, are increasingly morbidly compelling slews of self-loathing and misogyny - the soon-to-be notorious "I've never met a beautiful woman I actually liked" quote, again, evokes the young, angry and paranoid Costello of "The only emotions I understand are guilt and revenge" infamy.
So far so good, then, but then Radiohead wander onto the stage and it all goes horribly ... nowhere, and for a couple of fairly surprising reasons. The first is that Yorke, although he always looks great, intimidatingly surly, in videos and photos, something like an aggrieved mongoose, sorely lacks for stage presence, and it's not like the others (name them, anybody?) have been beamed down from Planet Charisma either. The second is that despite what appears an impressive three-guitar arsenal of sonic weaponry, Radiohead sound decidedly weedy. When, tonight, they try on the more delicate stuff, which is very much their strength on records (Fake Plastic Trees, My Iron Lung) they come down too hard on the powerchords, pummelling the subtleties senseless with a big, ham-fisted arena delivery. When, alternatively, they try to rock out (Anyone Can Play Guitar, Black Star) they're just curiously ineffectual, a distant hum.
Plastic Telex [sic], however, their most pleasing fusion of windswept American grandeur and claustrophobic English introspection works fine, and is now the clear highlight of the set, as poor old Creep no longer has a hope - there may be songs that are more difficult to enjoy, to vicariously inhabit, in the context of a massed beery singalong, but I'm buggered if I can name one. Interestingly, as well, that for all Radiohead's whining about being stigmatised by Creep, the outsider anthem is something they're clearly not shying away from: High & Dry and The Bends are shameless fists- aloft crowd-pleasers, the former a rewrite of U2's Stay, the latter lurching on a riff that more recalls Lynyrd Skynyrd or Boston.
Radiohead, then, seem resigned to bigger constellations of lofted lighters than this. If tonight's show seemed stand-offish and unengaging in a medium-sized hall (Thom's own assessment, incidentally, before the first of three encores, is that they played "a blinder"), it's exactly the kind of obvious, undetailed passion that lays waste to arenas. They'll crack America - for real, this time - and they'll do it the way NIN have, by bringing the world's self-described outsiders together in vast throngs to sing along to the same words to the record they all own. Nice work if you can get it, but one wonders how happy Radiohead, grimly determined misfits that they are, will be able to do it.