Radiohead are one of those phenomenally successful and critically adored bands that I've never entirely "got". I remain defiant in my belief that their debut Pablo Honey is fiercely underrated (for all its slightness), but where I really diverge from common opinion is in finding OK Computer a po-faced slab of a disc, all but entirely divorced from human feeling. It's the album Stanley Kubrick would write; all cold surfaces and long, unfeeling glances. Their later albums are even worse.
The one point upon which I agree entirely with consensus is how absolutely wonderful The Bends is. It's a work of angular, angry exhaustion with the world, but it maintains a fragile beauty at its core. This stems from nothing so positive as hope, of course - "(Nice Dream)" makes that clear enough - rather it reveals a central core of the "calm, autumnal sadness" Bertram Russell insisted was the proper response to the world as it is and always was.
"Fake Plastic Trees" represents the best of this latter approach, with all the rough edges filed away to produce a gorgeous expression of sleepy sadness, a kind of insomniac's lament over - appropriately enough - the unreality of everything surrounding them. It might be classic white-boy territory to fret over society as facade rather than as antagonist, but Yorke's lyrics - which he insists he wrote as a joke -weaves concerns over cosmetic surgery into the unsettling artificial landscapes surrounding us. It's no longer just the places that might not be what they seem, but the people.
Often these concerns come attached to the sinister or the cynical, a judgment of "those people", the teenage-born obsession with everyone being fake except yourself - the precise root of the petty misery of mankind that guarantees we can never have nice things. Here, though, Yorke doesn't sniff at the fake plastic people, he identifies with them. The woman who feels compelled to act as if naught is amiss by buying a plastic watering-can for her artificial plants. The girls who paid for cosmetic surgery ten years earlier only to find out there's no beating the long, slow pull of time. The cosmetic surgeon himself, sitting and wondering whether he really did any good for anyone. Hell, the whole town is now so filled with plastic it's like it's trying to "get rid of itself", like Cybermen cutting out and replacing one organ after another until nothing is left. These postage-stamp portraits are all ineffably sad, but Yorke saves the most affecting for last, as he moves up his vocal register and admits, falsetto, that he can't maintain his facade any more than anyone else can, but if he could...
All of this captured in a song of almost perfectly-judged instrumentation; the deceptive simplicity of the acoustic guitar and the mournful chimes of synthesiser gradually augmented by lush strings and stabs of electric guitar as the list of the broken grows and Yorke becomes more frantic about the seductive power of the artificial wars with his desire to escape, only to be punctured and disappear at the exact moment he surrenders, confessing he's no better than anyone else here, he's simply more familiar with how and why he's trapped.
According to various sources Yorke sang the vocal track in just two or three takes after seeing Jeff Buckley perform, and then burst into tears. This has never been difficult for me to believe. Far more surprising is that any of us manage to get through the song without doing the exact same thing.
And special bonus video: