#RethinkThursday: Radiohead’s “The Bends” on its 20th Anniversary

Note: This is the first in a planned series called Rethink Thursday. I’ll review old albums I have a specific opinion on, and see if I was wrong. Future editions will be shorter

Tomorrow — 13 March, 2015 — Radiohead’s The Bends turns twenty years old. I say that for three reasons:

1) I wanted to see the look on your face as your brain exploded. (It was priceless.)

2) I’m hoping Google picks up on this post’s huge pop-culture relevance and bumps me up the search rankings.

3) (This is the long one.) Among Radiohead albums, I’ve always considered The Bends to be the weakest. In fact I have never liked it. This is despite hearing Matt Pinfield say once that it was his favorite from the the Oxford quintet. (Others have said the same, to me personally, on a few occasions.)

I recognize that this opinion also completely ignores Pablo Honey, the band’s debut album after which I imagine Thom York just said “Hey everyone, hi yeah, uh, mulligan?” In my mind Pablo Honey has never really existed, and that left comparisons with the likes of OK Computer, Kid A, and In Rainbows. Next to those unquestioned winners, The Bends becomes the ugly, awkward kid in class.

There’ll be purists and hardcores up in arms, I’m sure. (Looking at you, Pinfield.) But Radiohead’s sophomore release has always struck me as, well, sophomoric. Take, for example, Thom Yorke’s lyrics here. Some standouts:

“I wish it was the sixties/I wish we could be happy/I wish that something would happen”

“Everything is broken/Everyone is broken”

 “Two jumps in a week/I bet you think that’s pretty clever, don’t you boy?/Flying on your motorcycle/Watching all the ground beneath you drop”

Not planning on a Pulitzer, are we Thom? On top of that, there’s always been this lingering feeling that, musically, The Bends is such a product of its time that its sound will never be able to transcend periods and trends like OK Computer can. Somewhere along the line, somebody REALLY must have wanted the sterilized-grunge sound of the mid-90s to slime its way through this whole release. No clue if that was the poor decision-making of a label exec, a producer, or an insecure band.

(Maybe a combination! Producer John Leckie to guitarist Johnny Greenwood through the studio glass: “Hey Johnny, Parlophone just called, and they REEEAALLYYY want you to sound like an amateur hack on this one.” Greenwood: “Oh you mean like those Bush fellows?” Leckie: “Perfect!”)

Whoever’s guilty, at several moments they made this album a downright time capsule for the first Clinton term. Listen to the title track from 1:05 to 1:17, or the bass line at the beginning of “Bones”. Even the principal guitar lick on the semi-legendary “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” almost demands a Chris Cornell vocal. It’s a small miracle the text on the cover isn’t printed in Courier New.

But I listened from time to time, usually with Pinfield’s voice echoing gravel-y through my head, and tried to force myself to like The Bends.

It never worked. I put it down. For years.

Until two weeks ago. From nowhere, guitar lines and drum beats from a long-lost memory came rushing back to me. I found myself absentmindedly whistling the chorus to “Sulk”, which I didn’t know I knew. (And then PASSIONATELY whistling it, which I didn’t know was a thing.) And I thought to myself: how old IS that album? Twenty years?

Hello, Wikipedia. Twenty years, it turns out, almost to the day.

So I decided on an experiment. The album’s old, to be sure, and it had been probably a decade since I last gave it a shot. What if I’ve been wrong this whole time, and The Bends isn’t the dumpster fire I always remembered it to be? What if everyone who’s sworn by this quote-unquote masterpiece was actually swearing to something true?

And what if this isn’t the only great album I’ve done this to?

So, here it is: the inaugural Rethink Thursday. Track by track, and then overall, was I mistaken about The Bends? I’m playing it once through, taking live notes, and hitting publish. Listen along if you’d like. Here goes nothing:

Track 1 – “Planet Telex”: If I remembered that the guitar work on this album was rudimentary, I was wrong. Greenwood’s cavernous opening tones attest to that. But the opening crash and drumbeat do genuinely affirm what I recalled: this is certainly a mid-90s album. Thom Yorke’s vocals are evocative and even darkly sensual, and the lyrics aren’t as direct as I remember: “You can walk it home straight from school/You can kiss it, you can break all the rules”. No clue what it means, but it keeps me wondering. The chorus is a wide-open-head-buster, to coin an awkward phrase on the fly, and well delivered. Tremolo guitar work throughout the hook/intro/outro is lovely, and is that a bit of OK Computer I hear in the creepy tone there at the end? This whole experience could be more pleasant than I thought.

2 – “The Bends”: The field recording at the beginning makes me think of the more recent track “Sorry” by The Moth & the Flame. Cool. But you guys, when the guitar intro (and Yorke’s Live-esque yell!!) come in, it’s still that 90s deal. And Johnny (presumably it’s Johnny) wraps up the prechorus solo with a really amateurish couple of notes. Like tasteless. Even the power of Thom’s periodic wails and Johnny’s later solos can’t save this one. I think this is the song that put the bad taste in my mouth for the whole album. It still might; we’ll see.

3 – “High and Dry”: The acoustic riff is a heartbreaker. In a good way. But then those atrocious opening lyrics. The whole verse! The whole first accursed verse! Gosh, this is a nice-sounding song. Why, Thom? Why? And just as the song starts to recover, there’s all this nonsense about “they will be the ones”/”you will be the one” that’s shoved in my face. Sorry, I just can’t do it. The guitar solo sounds custom made for an early season of The Real World. That wasn’t– not– funny!

4 – Fake Plastic Trees: This is the song I find myself going back to way more than any other on the album, like unwittingly. Because it’s actually perfect. A little overdramatic lyrically at times, maybe. But I think it fits. And look at the song structure. Three sets of AAB, each louder than the ones before it, all of them about why people put so much making themselves fake, for the sake of being better. The B section: “And it wears me out.” Repeat that whole idea three times, get more and more intense, and then finish the whole thing with a freaking subordinate clause! “And if I could be who you wanted all the time…” … … and that’s the end of the song. Pick your heart up off the floor. It’s broken btw.

5 – Bones: STEREO TREMOLO TO DIE FOR. Then a monster-slick bass line fit for the finest Pixies track. A withdrawn verse blows up, in perfect 90s fashion, into a massive explosion of a chorus. No clue what Thom’s singing in the chorus, but the guy certainly appears to believe whatever it is. Johnny Greenwood’s new take on a traditional blues feel gives the track roots that actually might come off too cute, but the chorus carries this one despite all the 90s moments.

6 – (Nice Dream): I keep wanting this track to be as great as “Fake Plastic Trees”, and it keeps not being. It’s a good one. It’s fine. The shiny acoustic guitar gives it the intimate authenticity necessary for any successful recording from the time period. but it kind of exists, and that’s all. Highlights: “She says she’d love to come help but/The sea would electrocute us all”. Love me some paranoid Thom Yorke. Also Greenwood’s whale songs near the end. Lowlight: The over-affected hard-alternative breakdown there at the end. Contrived, contrived, contrived, and never delivers emotionally.

7 – Just: Did Eve 6 just show up on this intro? In so many ways, this one is a step back musically, even if the video is pretty darn solid. The saving grace here, as it is so often on The Bends, is Johnny Greenwood. His first solo is one I’d aspire to play for sure, and after the chromatic breakdown he comes in with the tone of a banshee suffering through the Spanish Inquisition. Then his digital-ish tones after he climbs up and everybody else drops out — daggum, son.

8 – My Iron Lung: Ok we get it, Thom. It’s an extended metaphor. Driving bass line to keep us moving forward. More chromatic breakdowns to punctuate the thing, and was this track the inspiration for later Marilyn Manson songs? Electric piano foreshadows what we’ll see from the band in later albums. It’s ok and I can live without it. Could anybody else use a Red Bull right now? I know I could. And I hate the stuff.

9 – Bullet Proof..I Wish I Was: Yet more gorgeous, terrifying ambient stuff before the acoustic comes in. In some ways this one feels like a precursor to OK Computer‘s “Climbing Up The Walls”. I just wish the guitar on the chorus didn’t sound SO MUCH like something Angela Chase would listen to after a night with Jordan Catalano. Intricate work, with lovely effects that fell deeply out of fashion when everybody got tired of them a year later.

10 – Black Star: The fade in! The fade in! It lasts forever and it’s glorious! Actually, this song is the one that gets stuck in my head more than any other on The Bends, besides “Fake Plastic Trees”. The chorus’ descending vocal line that turns into a croon up top has a way of worming its way right into my brain. The track’s arrangement features some beautiful dissonance. Philip Selway’s beat here fits the rest of the arrangement perfectly, and the interaction between drums and bass carries just enough pathos without distracting from Yorke’s verse vocals. And when he sings “This is killing me” at the end, I really believe him. Nice stuff.

11 – Sulk: Back to the hardcore 90s at the beginning here. Ringing, repetitive guitar over a shuffling waltz. Thinly veiled innuendo in the lyrics. And I feel like Thom had a bad day in the vocal booth on this one. Not a bad melody, just not as well executed as he’s capable of. (I actually catch some Simon & Garfunkel through this song.) Is it realistic to say that Greenwood’s guitar has a sinister shimmer to it? I’m saying it. By the way, the bass through this whole track is like a Sunday dinner: just feast, just feel nourished, feel totally at home.

12 – Street Spirit (Fade Out): And then, as the album’s closer, the song that Radiohead reportedly said they were chosen — cursed — by the universe to have to play. Yikes, guys. That’s actually been enough to keep me from ever looking into the lyrics. The video’s pretty haunting if you’re into that. Also, who knew the universe would choose you to build a song around what amounts to a Metallica lick? My favorite moments come when those incessant descending background vocals enter. Chills me to the bone. And guess what I just realized: the album ends on the same note that it started on, but in a different key. Nice detail

Overall: I’m thinking of two albums that helped define — even revolutionize? — guitar work after hair bands gave way to Pearl Jam’s blues. Those two are The Bends, and Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. I think a LOT of people who made music in the early part of this century look back to that 2002 Wilco release as the rise of something really new. But seven years before, despite the power chords and chorus effects around him, Johnny Greenwood seemed to take a look at his instrument and ask what was possible, in ways others just hadn’t. If you ask me, he wasn’t quite able to free himself from the musical landscape and find his voice until 1997’s OK Computer. Still, as I look back now to The Bends, there are moments where his innovative genius really does come out. Thom Yorke wrote a couple classic songs for this one, even if by and large the selections here are forgettable, only powerful because of big arrangements in which the frontman was able to let loose vocally a bit. The whole band is steady, consistent, tight, and thoughtful, and still sometimes edging on bedlam, which is exciting. But they haven’t found themselves yet, and they’re leaning on outside forces to direct them, rather than trusting themselves as they did so well for over a decade afterwards. So will I go back to this album? Yeah. I will. And it’s well enough put together than I suspect I’ll gradually find new reasons to actually, maybe, like it.

Any suggestions for next week’s #RethinkThursday? What albums do you remember hating that you might love, or remember loving that you might hate? Seriously, I want to know. Comment below.
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6 thoughts on “#RethinkThursday: Radiohead’s “The Bends” on its 20th Anniversary

  1. How did I not know you had a music blog, Nephi? I’m glad you rethought this. I don’t see The Bends as a masterpiece but I do see it as essential. When I do a Radiohead retrospective (which I find myself doing often) I just start at OK Computer. Pablo Honey is basically nonexistent – I’ve never been able to make it through a few songs, let alone the whole album. The Bends is in a different category to me but definitely enjoyable and you’ve righted your wrong… mostly. “High and Dry” is classic (check out the Jamie Cullum cover for a different take). I have no lyric problems and don’t see it any more dramatic than, say, “Creep.” The opening build on “Planet Telex” sends me into the world of The Bends and keeps me there.

    As for suggestions, when I first heard Achtung Baby! I was already a huge U2 fan but, despite many great songs, the album as a whole didn’t rub me the right way. I’ve since repented of that (…mostly) and realized that “Love is Blindness” is the most important song on that album. Two other U2 albums that I think deserve rethinking by the rest of the world: Zooropa & Pop. Both are masterpieces of an eccentric sort and, in my book, grossly underappreciated (including by the band itself). Thanks for the post!

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    • Wow Eric, I really appreciate your response. My take on Pablo Honey is like yours: essentially a non-take because I can’t stand listening to it. The intro to “Planet Telex” does the same to me, but I’ve always felt that “The Bends” does a bad enough job of delivering on that promise, that I feel ripped from that world. It’s a real (ahem) let down.

      Sorry.

      Glad you revisited Achtung Baby. That’s my favorite U2 album by a mile. I’ll have to go back and listen to Zooropa and Pop again. I do so with fear and trembling.

      (By the way, Fictionist are at SXSW this week with a strong narrative and a crack PR firm behind them. I expect good things.)

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  2. I must say, this was a pretty fascinating read. I find it really great the way you can dissect each song. You know way more about music than I probably ever will. I agree that not all of the songs on this album are the greatest, but “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” is still my favorite Radiohead song of all time. It was the song that turned me into a Radiohead fan, so I will always have a special place in my heart for that song.

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  3. Everyone swears by De-loused in the Comatorium by The Mars Volta. I loved it when it released and still do. What say you?

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    • Never got into The Mars Volta. Saw them at ACL Festival several years back, deeply respected the musicianship and creativity, but never got into the sound. That might be one to revisit in the coming weeks. Thanks man!

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