Radiohead’s 'The Bends' at 20: Classic Track-By-Track Review
Had Radiohead vanished after its first album, 1993's Pablo Honey, the quintet from Oxford, England, would be remembered as a decent grunge band with one novelty hit. That song, of course, is "Creep," a crushing outsider's anthem that might've played like a post-Nirvana alt-rock parody had singer Thom Yorke not actually been such a creepy weirdo who didn't belong on pop radio.
With "Creep," Yorke was up front about his non-rock-star qualities, but when he moaned, "I wish I was special," well, he was just being modest. Beginning with its second album, The Bends -- released 20 years ago today in the U.K. and three weeks later in America -- Radiohead proved it wasn't just a bunch of smarty-pants Brits aping the Pixies or the Seattle sound.
On these dozen songs, Yorke comes into his own as a troubled, enigmatic lyricist and howler of haunted melodies. The band -- and especially guitarist Jonny Greenwood-- also advances the plot, riding a psychedelic tailwind beyond the borders of Alternative Nation.
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More than simply a successful skirting of the sophomore slump, The Bends is an early taste of the avant-garde flavor capsule Radiohead would serve up via android waiter two years later on OK Computer, the group's real artistic leap forward.
If The Bends is less staggeringly different from Pablo Honey than some subsequent Radiohead albums would be from their immediate predecessors (see: OK Computer into 2000's glitchy, guitar-lacking Kid A), the progression is unmistakable. The guitars don't simply go from quiet to loud and back again; there are layers upon layers of jangle, shimmer, shudder, and crunch.
The sound is bold and confident, and it didn't come easy. Reeling from the pressure of sudden fame, Radiohead faltered during its initial sessions at London's RAK Studios in early 1994. It took a second go-round at Richard Branson's Manor complex to wrap many of the tracks. Manning the boards both times was producer John Leckie, whose credits include the self-titled debut by the Stone Roses, a Radiohead favorite.
While drummer Phil Selway told Consumable in May 1995 that Leckie taught the band "how to use the studio in different ways and how to get the best out of our material," Radiohead's bosses at EMI weren't totally sold. The label handed the master tapes to Sean Slade and Paul Q. Kolderie, the producers behind Pablo Honey, and they set about giving the record a more American-style mix.
From a chart standpoint, they failed. The Bends peaked at No. 88 on the Billboard 200, and none of its singles managed to crack the Top 10 on even the Alternative Songs chart. But the album was a critical hit, and at the end of 1995 -- after which time Radiohead had rocked arenas as tour support for R.E.M. -- The Bends made many critics' year-end best-of lists.
Two decades on, The Bends is seen as the jumping-off point for a group that's been jumping around ever since. It's experimental, but it also rocks, and if there were a Radiohead album everyone could agree on, this might be it. Read on for our track-by-track take on this 20-year-old collection of cockeyed beauts.
"Planet Telex": The album opens with a bloody huge shoegazer swirl of guitar and keyboard. It's a massive noise, but Yorke's melody is bigger still. He's singing about futility -- how "everything is broken" and destined to remain that way -- and yet the track crackles with energy signaling anything but resignation.
"The Bends": For the first 45 seconds, this could be an Oasis track. Then the vocals come in, and Yorke's piss-take on jaded rock-star behavior reveals a searing intelligence and contempt for the world that Noel Gallagher never gets at with his songwriting. It's why Oasis at its best is so much more fun to listen to.
"High and Dry": Written long before the Bends sessions, this sweetest-sounding of all Radiohead singles hardly seems like the kind of thing Yorke would abide. Sure enough, he's on record as hating it, though there's nothing to be ashamed of. The spirit of alienation in the lyrics keeps things sour enough to balance out the sugary acoustic guitars and falsetto hook. There's no mistaking this for Top 40 treacle.
"Fake Plastic Trees": Like Blur said, modern life is rubbish, and here, Yorke and the boys go strolling through a synthetic landscape where the trees are rubber and even the people are part silicone and polystyrene. For a second, when the strings swell and the track reaches its warm-blooded emotional peak, Yorke convinces himself that escape is possible. Then he gets tired, and it's back to the unnatural nature walk.
"Bones": Recorded shortly before the release of R.E.M.'s "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" "Bones" plays like an accidental companion. Michael Stipe wrote his band's 1994 hit from the perspective of an out-of-touch oldster trying to make sense youth culture. With "Bones," Yorke and the gang employ a similar heavy tremolo riff and lyrical conceit. "I don't want to be crippled and cracked," Yorke sings. "Shoulders, wrists, knees and back." The fear hear isn't losing your hipness -- it's breaking a hip.
"(Nice Dream)": The parentheses are a giveaway that the positivism implied by the title is an illusion -- a wish that can't come true. The music echoes this, as rolling acoustic chords and frilly strings present a counterpoint to the stormy psych-rock shrieking of the tune's dramatic build. In this dream world, when Yorke calls on his guardian angel, she's too busy to help out. And if she were to intervene, "the sea would electrocute us all." With friends like these…
"Just": At 3:54, this isn't the longest song on The Bends, but due to Jonny Greenwood's guitar heroics and the constantly shifting structure, it feels that way. The track opens with a scratchy blast of guitar almost certainly meant to evoke Nirvana, and after that, as Yorke rails against an egotistical acquaintance, the song turns from alt-rock rager to bluesy acoustic jam to psychedelic screamer. For a few bars near end, it's even a jazzy-funky thing you could almost dance to.
"My Iron Lung": The title track of the EP that preceded The Bends, "My Iron Lung" is said to be about "Creep" -- hence that harrumphing "this is our new song" line. Also: the general grungy feel, punctuated by those shouty, thrashy "The head shrinkers / they want everything" bits, seemingly plucked from Nirvana's "Heart-Shaped Box." But this ain't about looking back. In the verses, pretty pointillist guitar shares space with deafening distortion, and the music wriggles and writhes toward an unexpected ending.
"Bulletproof… I Wish I Was": One way to make yourself impervious to bullets: transform into a cloud. That's what the band does here, floating milky electric guitar tones over more of those gentle acoustic chords used so brilliantly throughout the album.
"Black Star": Misanthropic musical geniuses have feelings, too. On "Black Star," Yorke delivers the closest The Bends has to a straightforward love song. Naturally, it's a depressing love song, though it's only been "58 hours" since Yorke and his lady laid down together, so maybe there's hope yet. If the whole thing is doomed, though, and he really is "gonna melt down," there's a lovely ringing riff to soundtrack his collapse.
"Sulk": This gorgeous thunderstorm of a track is about a 1987 shooting spree that left 17 people dead -- not that you'd know from the lyrics. Yorke reportedly cut the words "just shoot your gun" after Kurt Cobain's suicide, but even if he'd left them in, "Sulk" would have the gloomy swoon of a lover's lament. "Sometimes you sulk," Yorke sings, like he's ready to stop the moping and start being Bono already. "Sometimes you burn." And if you're Thom Yorke, sometimes you write about massacres much the same way you do heartbreak.
"Street Spirit (Fade Out)": Anyone who finds the first 11 Bends cuts too depressing should hit stop before the hypnotic guitar arpeggio of this final track works its dark magic. Once it gets going, a spell takes hold, and you're stuck in what Yorke has called a "dark tunnel without the light at the end." He sings of row houses and dead birds, suggesting a fear of settling down and growing old, and though the songs ends with the words "Immerse your soul in love," they're slurred and stretched almost to the point of unintelligibility. Baby's got the bends, all right.