21 Years Ago: Radiohead Rewrite Their Future With ‘The Bends’
The Bends is a Radiohead album we all can agree on. There’s plenty there for listeners who love albums that carefully balance the ballads and the rockers, albums that strives to pack their concerns into tight story lines and powerful hooks. But The Bends is also satisfying for those of us who like New Weird Radiohead, a portrait of a band pushing themselves beyond their alt-rock peers, foreshadowing the operas and innovations that would come later. It’s an album that exemplifies what many love the most about the singular band (laying the template, in the process, for a whole school of mainstream ripoffs). At the same time it’s a transitional record — one that moved them toward their own vision, a vision no one could touch.
Radiohead hunkered down in their London studio for their first time in early '94, after two years of touring. Expectations for The Bends were high; “Creep” had been an international hit, and had dragged Pablo Honey onto the charts with it. But increased confidence in the band from their label, EMI, also meant they had more time to make the record. Thom Yorke had blamed Pablo Honey’s mediocrity (even then it was obvious) largely on the fact that the band had felt rushed in the studio. “'Creep' was one of the songs on the first album where we did start to realize what a studio could do,” Yorke told Melody Maker in 1993, as the band was still in the midst of constant touring. “There's a lot more to it than just going in, setting up and trying to make it sound live.” The band spent month after month in the studio, going well past their October, 1994 release deadline, determined to do their songs full justice. Their arrangements became more layered and more symphonic; their sturdy compositions grew thick limbs and wide leaves.
The Bends, released in the last weeks of winter, 1995 is a chilly album, an album filled with disappointment and dissatisfaction. Pablo Honey dealt in a youthful angst we all could relate to, sentiments chiseled down to their thematic bones. The Bends was something more complex, more nuanced, anxiety in place of angst, its feet planted in a kind of serious, albeit dire, searching.
“My Iron Lung,” the album’s first single, is said to be a bitter response to the popularity of “Creep,” which had stayed relevant and so insulated the band, keeping them alive against the shifting currents of pop music. It wasn’t only spiteful (“suck your teenage thumb/ Toilet trained and dumb”); but also nervous (“The headshrinkers / They want everything”) and numb ("My brain says I'm receiving pain; A lack of oxygen”). Its meaning is elusive, contradictory, encompassing of much; it’s shot all the way through with existential dread. It's a serious grappling with social alienation that transcends the self-absorbed anger of the band's earlier work.
Elsewhere, songs like “Just” represented the band at its most acidic. Critics couldn’t help pointing out its similarity to “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” but it's a full expression of the band’s songwriting growth. The guitars are everywhere, crashing walls of distortion, bent-blues fills, damaged little interludes, droning, squealing, flinging upward and bottoming out like a drunken acrobat. The vocal melody is designed to build maximum tension, with the descending half steps (“just you / you”) leading to maximum release and a comfortable return to the major key (“and no one else.”) Radiohead owned these kind of melodic tricks, and if they could copyright them, they could sue Muse into oblivion. They also had a vocalist who could execute them the way they needed to be executed.
That, of course, goes double for the ballads. Unlike any other Radiohead record, The Bends has proper ballads, with slowly building verses and soaring choruses and all the sweet emotional release the comes with them. Yorke only really busted out the falsetto once on Pablo Honey, on “Creep,” but on “High and Dry” it’s the centerpiece, hitting the heights with a full heart and no gimmicks. “Bulletproof… I Wish I Was” and “Black Star” are almost orthodox, at least by Radiohead standards. "Black Star" contains utterly conventional lines like "I try to stay awake but it's 58 hours since I last slept with you/ What are we coming to?” But there’s also that black star at the center of the song, a malevolent force of nothingness, the name of all Yorke’s troubles. His delivery is operatic, like a deathbed scene — one that silently contains all the panic and hysteria of a crushing final moment.
“Fake Plastic Trees” is the album’s centerpiece. It’s almost sappy, at the beginning — Yorke goes full-on Aaron Neville with that falsetto — but its power builds as darkness accumulates. It’s a ballad, too, in its softly-unfolding storytelling, its emotional peaks, the strings that lift the song. But it’s an absurdist ballad, a ballad about the emptiness of the world — an emptiness not inherent in the world, but a plastic, fabricated emptiness. (One thinks of the album’s dedication, to late comedian Bill Hicks.) Yorke’s disgust and existential worry finally find their worthiest target. Even in its finale it exudes a dread of the hollow and the empty. The chills, perhaps only implied, run all the deeper.
The band's trajectory in 1995 wasn't as clear as it seems now. At the same time they were pushing guitar rock forward, they were less-publicly indulging an early fetish for electronic sounds — but the rich sounds of early Björk and Tricky, not the sputterings of Kid A. “Talk Show Host” was a b-side on the “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” single, and became a minor hit after it was included on the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack. It’s almost one of kind in the Radiohead oeuvre — almost: see the downright-sultry “India Rubber” — but it contains an entire alternate history of the band, one where they got groovier, following a shift in alternative rock exemplified by Garbage and Smashing Pumpkins.
Instead, they did something no one else did, and the seeds of that trajectory are right there in The Bends' closing track, “Street Spirit (Fade Out).” It’s a portrait of a dystopian world, with death and its “beady eyes” creeping around the corner; it’s also a kind of contained symphony, rooted in a single chord that builds and builds on itself, stretching its own capacity by retreating deeper inside itself. “Street Spirit" points to what the band made themselves on OK Computer — composers of contained, dramatic compositions, complex in a way that underscored the anti-human prefabrications of modern life. On “Street Spirit,” they offer a kind of healing mantra, repeated at the end of the song: "Immerse your soul in love.” Later, with an even greater mastery of the studio and thrust toward compositional elegance, they'd stop offering solutions altogether.