On this very day in 1995, Radiohead released their ninth single: ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’, which in March was to feature in their second studio album The Bends. ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’ is, ultimately, a really fucking good song.
Through my misfortune of existing only as a nearly fully developed foetus at the point of its release, I’ve only ever known ‘Street Spirit’ within the context of The Bends. The song literally fades out the album, all within a meta-structure as Yorke sings “fade out.” There is something infinitely hopeless about ‘Street Spirit,’ something irreconcilably melancholic. The guitar swells with the melancholy which Yorke piercingly narrates. The lyrics are fragmented, presenting frames of misery rather than a story arc. We are facing melancholy in its purest and irreparable form.
Yorke describes ‘Street Spirit’ as “drain[ing]” and “shak[ing]” him each time he plays it. ‘Street Spirit’ is not pretty, it’s not optimistic. It narrates the unintelligible ineffable feeling that everyone on occasion is struck by – that one day we will disappear, and cease to have any significance. If we ever had any to begin with. We remain oblivious to so much that one day we will have to “swallow whole” – one day we will face all the tragedy and pain that we are desensitised and oblivious to. Much like Yorke suppresses the emotion that ‘Street Spirit’ connotes in order to be able to perform without “cracking”, this is the way in which we conceivably exist. There is no lift in the song, arpeggios build up, play through, and fade out once more. There is no glimmer or release.
Yorke was disturbed at the live reaction to ‘Street Spirit,’ unnerved by the cheers and smiles of the audience. It is certainly not a song that makes you smile, but in artistically depicting something that feels so unpennable, Radiohead have created something hauntingly astute. It doesn’t misfire in its indulgence, it is far from the tepid whinery that ‘sad songs’ are often connected to. There is something mesmerising in melancholia when illustrated well. And Radiohead have done exactly that.