PABLO HONEY — A RETROSPECTIVE REVIEW
Oh Pablo Honey. I feel bad for this record, I do. It has the misfortune of kicking off one of the most storied, acclaimed, and over analyzed discographies in musical history. That’s a lot of pressure for a record that is essentially grunge-lite mixed with stadium rock. Which isn’t to say it’s a bad record, just kind of a mediocre one. But mediocre gets blown up to catastrophic when you look at OK Computer or even The Bends which only came out a couple years later and was several light years ahead of anything the band had produced.
See Pablo came out at a weird time. The Radiohead we all know and love is well known for borrowing musical sounds of past and present to shed a light on pop music’s future. Radiohead has become synonymous with innovation, for better and worse. But in the early 90s, Radiohead weren’t trend setters. They were trend followers, and pretty shabby ones at that.
Pablo reeks of early 90s grunge and alternative rock. It’s big, loud, polished and melodramatic in the same way as Nevermind or Siamese Dream, almost to a fault. You get the sense those albums were copied less out of a genuine sense of apprenticeship, and more because Radiohead was afraid of alienating the current rock audience. There’s a few moments here and there where the songwriting gets surprising, even unpredictable, but you can tell they were still finding their own sound. There’s a LOT of R.E.M. worship all over this album, as well as some not so secret nods to the Pixies (aka the loud/soft dynamics of “Creep” and “Ripcord”). There’s an overwhelming urge to put what was considered the “right” influences on display, so don’t expect any prog-punk freakouts like “Paranoid Android” or experimental string sections or textured soundscapes or anything that Radiohead is traditionally known for; in 1993 any of that would be considered career suicide.
I suppose the biggest problem with Pablo is the insecurity on display. There’s very few risks taken in the songwriting, which is funny considering Radiohead is the band that famously threw away a guaranteed spot as the biggest band in the world by leaving rock music behind with super weird, challenging electronic experimentation of Kid A.
None of that creative energy is on display. There’s plenty of ambition here sure, I mean it is Radiohead. But where Radiohead has become known for being so far ahead of the curve musically, here it sounds like they’re just playing an elaborate game of catch up. “Creep” was a justified mega-hit, but nothing on the album even approaches the stand out quality of that single. The material just kind of shuffles along until the album just sort of…ends.
There are some keepers: “You” is a big, powerful call to arms that points to the creative edge the band would later mine for future album openers like “Planet Telex” or “Airbag”. “Ripcord” is actually a really fun track that grows on you, and shows the keen sense of dynamics that Radiohead had sharpened to a fine point from rehearsing militantly as prep school teens (back when they were known as On A Friday, named after their designated rehearsal day in the school’s music room). Perhaps most thrilling though, is “Blow Out” the left field bossa-nova influenced album closer that explodes into fuzzy, psychedelic indie rock and then white noise reminiscent of Sonic Youth at their most poppy. “Blow Out” alone makes the album worth at least one full spin.
I don’t really have much else to say about Pablo Honey. The truth is, it’s really not that bad of a record. Like most Radiohead fanatics, I like to pretend the album is a dirty little secret, “The-Record-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named”. A lot of that has to do with the fact that Radiohead themselves are pretty uneasy about this record’s place in their development. They basically killed themselves touring this material (a premonition of things to come) and by the time they were done, they were sick of the “alternative” sound. For a band as imaginative as Radiohead, playing what they admitted was mediocre, commercially minded material must have been actual torture. They left this 90s alt rock sound almost immediately, and forged ahead into all out stadium rock with The Bends.
Pablo is important though, especially because at some spots it does point to where the band would later go with their music. The Pixies influence, the R.E.M. worship, the innate sense to rock out hard and put on a great show, these are all elements that would become staples of the Radiohead sound, at least for the remainder of the century.