It is impossible to listen to Pablo Honey, a mostly fine album released by a then-new rock band in 1993, without bringing a ton of baggage to the experience in 2016.

For starters, there is a case to be made that the band that released Pablo Honey only made one album. Radiohead has been around for 23 years, long enough that it has earned and (arguably) aged-out of the dual titles of “Best Rock Band” and “Most Important Rock Band,” both in the eyes of the music-consuming public and the critical community at least twice. No band stays the same forever—in fact, a central part of Radiohead’s legendary success is its well-documented willingness to embrace new ideas—but its debut album is one of the only times in its history that this “rock” band actually sounds like its “rock” contemporaries.

25 months after early-‘90s listeners would dig into album-opener “You,” the band would come back with The Bends, a record that bears only a passing resemblance to its noisy, straightforward predecessor. The Radiohead that made Pablo Honey had no future, and likely wouldn’t have even if the group hadn’t become obsessed with experimenting with audio texturing instead of guitar riffs in its intervening years. By 1993, the post-grunge boom was beginning to bust and, had the band continued its Pearl Jam-by-way-of-Pixies trajectory, it’s very possible that this album would be appearing in the “Bargain Bin” feature on this website, lacking a discography worth discussing at all.

There are clues that project into the future, even if they manifest themselves differently than this album’s initial trajectory suggests. The urgent guitar-playing of Jonny Greenwood is instantly recognizable in the speedy, whining solos on songs like “Ripcord” and “Lurgee.” Album closer “Blow Out” has the kind of jazzy paranoia that would come to be the band’s hallmark. Even here, lead singer Thom Yorke’s trademark vocal style (kind of like a singing ghost) and pessimistic worldview (which can be oversimplified to the pervasive belief that everyone and everything is fucking doomed) are present and center, though the former is more developed than the latter.

Hindsight allows the current-era listener to write off lyrics like “And if the world does turn/ And if London burns/ I’ll be standing on the beach with my guitar/ I wanna be in a band when I get to heaven/ Anyone can play guitar/ And they won’t be a nothing anymore” as first pass at the moody fatalism that the band would come to embody so directly on records like OK Computer and Kid A, but that doesn’t make “Anyone Can Play Guitar” any less corny on paper. Yorke was working on an idea, but on Pablo Honey, he’s striking at the narrative, not the abstract. It’s a decision he’d come to change as he became a more mature song writer.

Oddly enough (or maybe not oddly at all), the album’s biggest song is the one that most embodies what the band would come to be. “Creep,” besides being the record’s biggest single and one of the band’s most recognizable songs to this day, is a bellwether of what the band would accomplish in its later works. Not just in a symbolic, English-major way—though one could certainly point to the production and mood of the song in support of that thesis—but in a tangible, specific way, described by Yorke himself in an interview with Melody Maker magazine in 1993:
“‘Creep’ was one of the songs on the first album where we did start to realize what a studio could do—that there’s a lot more to it than just going in, setting up and trying to make it sound like it’s live.” If one projects that realization outward, the argument is that “Creep” is the moment that Radiohead realized that rock songs didn’t just have to borrow the guitar tone from Ten and shoot for the rafters. They could sound like “Everything in Its Right Place,” too.

More than anything else though, more than the hints pointing to a future that has already come, Pablo Honey feels like a product of its time, influenced very much by the bands that were making significant headway in American and UK rock at the time. There are pieces of Nirvana, Pixies, Dinosaur Jr. and Pearl Jam all over songs like “You,” “How Do You” and “Ripcord.” What is striking is how straightforward and traditionally “rocking” these songs are. Perhaps the best lens through which to look at Radiohead’s debut album is one of reminder; the biggest band in the world was young once, too, and they only cared about making a big noise. That’s an honest enough place to start, even if one doesn’t end up changing the world in the process. Were one to hear this in the context in which it was released, it’s hard to imagine anyone projecting them out to being the 21st century’s most important band, but it would sound pretty good coming from a car stereo.

  • Holy Hell! Kid A Turns 20

    Kid A in 2000 was as cold and angular as its cover art. Kid A in 2020 is a far easier list…
  • EOB: Earth

    O'Brien puts his decades of experience in Radiohead to use in creating a diverse but not d…
  • Concert Review: Thom Yorke

    Yorke seemed downright gleeful to be performing for us, smiling and dancing his way across…
  • Rae Sremmurd: SremmLife 2

    SremmLife 2 should have been a washed-over retread of past success. Instead, it might be t…
  • Look Park: Look Park

    Look Park is a breezy, effortless collection of mid-tempo piano pop. …
  • Dikembe: Hail Something

    There’s no shame in recreating the ‘90s. …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

Rae Sremmurd: SremmLife 2

SremmLife 2 should have been a washed-over retread of past success. Instead, it might be t…