The Bends don’t get no respect.
With all the Grammy-winning, best-of-lists hoo-hah surrounding OK Computer, Kid A and In Rainbows, Radiohead’s second album has been kicked to the side of the road, in large part due to its traditional guitar-oriented stylings and familiar song structures. The Bends didn’t earn much respect when it was released, with American critics comparing Thom Yorke somewhat unfavorably to The Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan (!), the American alternative darling at the time. The Bends only went triple platinum and earned a spot in the best-of pile much later after the music-listening public couldn’t get enough Radiohead to satisfy their cravings.
While the Pixies influence is quite obvious and the grunge flavor that led one critic to call Radiohead “Nirvana Lite” is noticeable, the true value of The Bends lies in the emergence of a feature that would come to characterize every Radiohead production that followed.
I may not like everything Radiohead has done, but I never dispute the quality of their efforts. As they grew over the years, Radiohead’s compositions became stronger and their textures more diverse and interesting. On The Bends, they proved they had already mastered the conventions of the broad field known as alternative rock and deserved to be ranked among the best musicians of the decade. With OK Computer—and more dramatically with Kid A—they escaped genre-definition entirely. People don’t buy Radiohead records because they know what the records are going to sound like—they buy Radiohead because they know that whatever comes out of those speakers is going to be a high-quality listening experience. In a world chock full of schlock, repetitive crap and same-o, same-o, Radiohead is the keeper of the flame when it comes to quality.
I have high hopes for St. Vincent in that regard, but let’s give her a few more years and see how she reacts to the fucking Grammy she won last year.
I’ll discuss how I connected with Radiohead in my review of Kid A, but long story short, I really didn’t pay much attention to their first three albums: the conversion came later. I still have issues with some of Thom Yorke’s sloppier and more slithery vocals, and when it comes to Radiohead lyrics, they’re better when they follow the motto, “the less said, the better” and stick to a minimalist approach. Quibbles aside, Radiohead is probably the most important musical force of our time, and The Bends is the perfect introduction for those who are unfamiliar with Radiohead or have been turned off by snippets from their later, more complex work. The Bends features songs with recognizable structures and instrumentation that are completely familiar to the typical rock fan. What makes The Bends rise above other alternative rock efforts in the 90s is the quality of the musicianship and a commitment to excellence supported by an unusually high level of group cohesion. Like any group consisting of human beings, Radiohead has experienced significant conflict over the years, but they’ve managed to work through their differences by talking things out.
What a novel fucking thought. It’s amazing to me how many bands have imploded because the members lacked common and easily accessible interpersonal communication skills. The Beatles. The Clash. Oasis. Despite their differences, Radiohead has thrived because their shared commitment to excellence gives them the means to rise above petty differences.
And to achieve excellence, sometimes you’ve got to get shitfaced drunk! “Planet Telex” (originally “Planet Xerox” until someone reminded the band of trademark law) was recorded after the band got likkered up one night, and while I’m sure they smoothed out a few things in the mix, they didn’t touch Thom Yorke’s vocal, performed while lying on the floor in an advanced state of intoxication. The combination of Yorke’s boozy delivery and Radiohead’s fundamental tightness make “Planet Telex” one of the sexiest songs in Radiohead’s catalog, mixing Phil Selway’s superb drum work, deliciously bluesy guitar fills and Colin Greenwood’s expansive, soulful, bottom-filling bass in an arrangement punctuated with stop-time breaks. The lyrics fall into the uniquely Thom Yorke category of “Notes to Self,” an ever-growing compendium of lyrical fragments that capture both his inner thoughts and observations of life filtered through his unique prism. The line between inner thought and observation often fluctuates in his lyrics, and his comment on this song (according to Songfacts)—“The product of a single-sex education, romantic novels and art college”—points to a blurry line. Still, the feel of the song is intensely erotic, and while I usually feel disappointment when I hear the often cold sound of electric piano, the tones they wheedle out of the Fender Rhodes are warm and inviting.
The title track is a Gen X anthem with better articulated insight into that generation’s communicative tendencies than you can find in the work of their lead spokesperson, Kurt Cobain. As I wrote in my review of Nevermind:
Hitting adolescence during America’s Dark Ages in the late 1970’s, then watching their parents lose their jobs in the mass layoffs of the 1980’s while the country’s leaders were telling everyone it was “Morning in America,” Generation X learned not to believe or trust in anything. They thought the whole system was bullshit. They didn’t think of themselves as special; they even failed to develop any sort of generational identity. Generation X became the anti-generation, the generation of bottled-up feelings, the generation of emptiness.
But every generation, even the unfortunate ones, has their spokesperson, and Generation X adopted Kurt Cobain as their poet laureate. Since Kurt Cobain recoiled at the very notion of being the voice of any generation, the pairing was perfect: the anti-generation crowns the reluctant hero who doesn’t want the fucking job.
It is precisely because Kurt Cobain’s lyrics make no apparent sense that they constituted the ideal message for a generation that viewed any coherent message with deep suspicion. Kurt Cobain expressed meaninglessness in the form of half-sentences, jarring word combinations, stutters and stops. He modeled the very inability to succinctly express emotion that characterized Generation X. More than anyone else, he also expressed the intense frustration that his generation felt about expressing anything tangible at all; the line, “Well, whatever, never mind” encapsulated the frustrating experience of trying to connect with other human beings better than any ode, sonnet or epic could have.
The lyrics to “The Bends” reflect not only the aimlessness and isolation felt by their co-generationists but also the extreme difficulty that a more introverted, less confident generation encounters when trying to express experience through speech:
My baby’s got the bends
We don’t have any real friends
I’m just lying in a bar with my drip feed on talking to my girlfriend
Waiting for something to happen
And I wish it was the 60s, I wish I could be happy, I wish, I wish, I wish
That something would
I want to live and breathe
I want to be part of the human race (2)
Where do we go from here
The words are coming out all weird
Where are you now, when I need you
I find it fascinating that Radiohead’s popularity has increased over the years as their lyrics have become more and more opaque. By speaking in fragments, they wound up communicating more effectively with their core audience. Radiohead is equally popular with my generation, in large part because we all grew up on Nirvana: fragmented speech is not only second nature to us but appeals to our obsession with speed.
“High and Dry” was a song Thom Yorke had written years before and didn’t care for in the least. The song had been considered for inclusion in their first album, Pablo Honey, and only made it to The Bends (over Yorke’s objections) because of its pop-hit structure. Well, shee-it, there are compromises and then there are compromises, and I really don’t see “High and Dry” as a sellout. Sure, it’s a simple song with the same chord progression through verse and chorus, a progression that emphasizes the continuity of the III note (A-flat) of the root chord (Emaj), a nice little trick because of the variance created when Thom Yorke hits that A-flat note on the word “high” in the chorus over an F#m chord. “High and Dry” is a lovely little piece with an accessible, pleasing melody—a song that nearly anyone can play on acoustic guitar. Thom Yorke may have been grumpy about the whole thing, but giving fans songs they can play themselves at home or at parties increases the intimacy of the relationship between artist and listener. I still don’t know how I feel about Amanda Palmer’s ukelele versions of Radiohead classics, but I think she’s trying to make the same point: behind the apparent complexity of Radiohead you’ll often find fundamentally great songs.
Radiohead provided an even more compelling acoustic guitar piece with “Fake Plastic Trees,” a song with more chord color but still very easy to master. Years after I first heard it, I learned that Thom Yorke had written the song about Canary Wharf, a perfectly cold and horrid real estate development modeled after the sterile financial districts you’ll find in major cities in the U. S. A. I had the great misfortune to visit Canary Wharf on two occasions—once when I accompanied my mother when she went to Credit Suisse to pick up some documents for translation during one of our family vacations, and once for a corporate strategy session after I’d accidentally wound up as the director of my employer’s European operations a couple of years ago. Both experiences were intensely creepy and life-draining: an inhuman environment crawling with caricatures.
The song itself is more concerned with our obsession with appearances than bad architecture. The energy we put into trying to convince the world that we’re pretty and likable is not only wasted energy, but intensely energy-draining. “Fake Plastic Trees” came out right about the time when Baby Boomers became desperate to avoid the appearance of aging and girls my age became desperate for breast implants. I experienced the juxtaposition of these twin desperations when the well-heeled father of one of my high school girlfriends bought her a boob job for her high school graduation present.
I still can’t get my head around that one.
The effect of the pursuit of perfection is to overemphasize appearance at the expense of the soul. Our insistence on ridding ourselves of flaws only increases the obsession with imperfection, distorting self and our relationships with others:
She lives with a broken man
A cracked polystyrene man
Who just crumbles and burns
He used to do surgery for girls in the eighties
But gravity always wins
And it wears him out
And it wears him out
And it wears him out
She looks like the real thing
She tastes like the real thing
My fake plastic love
But I can’t help the feeling
I could blow through the ceiling
if I just turned and ran
And it wears me out
It wears me out
It wears me out
The song ends with one of the saddest epitaphs ever written, an exposition of the utter loneliness that drives our fixation with appearances:
If i could be who you wanted
If i could be who you wanted all the time, all the time
With its remarkably beautiful and flowing melody supported by perfectly-timed variations in dynamics, “Fake Plastic Trees” is an emotional powerhouse, and one of the great songs of the decade, if not all time.
“Bones” shifts from acoustic to medium-tempo boogie in a hard-rocking dramatic monologue about a guy who lives on Prozac and painkillers to deal with his decaying body and mind. Colin Greenwood’s powerful bass presents a strong groove, reflecting the style of the great soul bassists who influenced his approach to the instrument. The song peaks with Thom Yorke’s fabulous oscillating vocal on the chorus, where he shifts from falsetto to natural with amazing command, hitting unexpected notes that represent a stimulating challenge for those of you who like to sing along while driving or showering. “(Nice Dream)” shifts back to acoustic, with strumming from multiple guitars supported by strings and the rare (for Radiohead) appearance of background vocals. The flow is interrupted briefly by screaming guitar—not one of their better decisions, but the melody is rather dull and perhaps they felt the song needed a jolt.
“Just” opens with an acoustic guitar intro that is eerily close to the chord pattern that opens Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and as in so many Pixies-influenced Nirvana songs, the band follows the cue with LOUD, then lowers the sound levels for the verses. Despite all the similarities to what has been done before, “Just” is still an ass-kicking hoot, featuring a sassy vocal from Thom Yorke and a fade-out jam that proved to the listening public that Radiohead could rock with the best of them. The guitars in this piece form a rich tapestry, filling the scene with a cornucopia of sounds ranging from sweet counterpoints to screaming mayhem, and the fact that Jonny Greenwood, Ed O’Brien and Thom Yorke spun the tapestry without overdubs makes it that much more special.
A distinctive, wavering guitar riff opens “My Iron Lung,” hardly preparing us for the soft soul background music to the verses, but the two superficially disconnected musical ideas meld together beautifully as the verses proceed, giving the song a captivating, almost eerie feel. As the diversity of the musical elements increases along with the build, we keep expecting some kind of shift to LOUD, but when it comes—in a shocking burst of dissonant guitar and broken rhythm—it takes us completely by surprise. When the band shifts back to the softer background of the verses, the guitars sound like they can barely contain themselves, leading to another bitter explosion. The repetitive contrast between soothing and dissonant might irritate some, but to me, “My Iron Lung” is a brilliant musical composition that paints the modern human dynamic of the spoken, “No, really, I’m okay” that masks the frightened anger burning inside. The iron lung, symbolizing not only captivity and claustrophobia but self-protection, is a powerful metaphor for enforced alienation, an alienation often caused by our consistently superficial interactions with other human beings. The song ends with an ironic piece of self-affirmation:
And if you’re frightened
You could be frightened
You can be
And if you’re frightened
You could be frightened
You can be
The four songs that close The Bends are notable for their exceptionally strong melodies. “Bullet Proof . . . I Wish I Was” also begins with heavy contrast: a dark, almost shoegaze background over gently strummed acoustic guitar and Colin Greenwood’s subtle but marvelous bass work. As the song moves forward, the strange sounds shift in and out of deep background as Thom Yorke’s gentle vocal is accompanied by arpeggiated guitar. It’s a nice interval song but feels somewhat incomplete. “Black Star,” which seems to open in the middle as Radiohead opts for a fade-in, is by far the stronger composition due to the flowing melodic line and the appearance of vocal harmony in the chorus and on selected lines of verse. The build and resolution of the chorus are executed perfectly, and I adore the guitar-rich fade with its truncated measures.
“Sulk” features one of Radiohead’s most lovely melodies, a melancholy-inducing pattern that flows beautifully in 6/8 time. The sense of melancholy is enhanced by the contrasting rhythm of the lead guitar motif played in 4/4. The polyrhythmic patterns are held together by the superb work of the rhythm section of Colin Greenwood and Phil Selway, whose steady backing furnishes the foundational stability. “Sulk” is a deeply compelling song of rare beauty.
There is deep irony in the use of the word “beauty” in connection to “Sulk,” as the song was written about the 1987 Hungerford Massacre, where a crazed, suicidal gunman took the lives of sixteen innocent human beings and wounded fifteen others. Thom Yorke had written the original shortly after the event, and the band decided to resurrect the song for The Bends. The reason the subject matter is not apparent in the lyrics is because the original closing line of the chorus, “Just shoot your gun,” was changed to avoid any perception of a connection to Kurt Cobain’s suicide. The line change makes the connection to the Massacre tenuous at best, transforming the unseen character into a generic social misfit and the storyline to one of failed rescue. Despite the shift, “Sulk” retains its emotional power and is probably my favorite song on the album.
The Bends comes to a close with another song steeped in contrast, “Street Spirit (Fade Out).” The sweet arpeggiated guitar, Thom Yorke’s passionate vocal and the introduction of strings combine to create an almost soothing effect, and the relatively steady dynamics impose a certain restraint on the proceedings. The lyrics, on the other hand, are not the kind of lyrics you want to hear in the spa:
This machine will
Will not communicate these thoughts and this strain I am under
Be a world child form a circle before we all go under
And fade out again and fade out again
Cracked eggs dead birds scream as they fight for life
I can feel death can see its beady eyes
All these things into position
All these things we’ll one day swallow whole
And fade out again and fade out again
Though the song ends with the repetition of the line, “Immerse your soul in love,” the imagery that precedes it is so unrelentingly disturbing that you leave The Bends feeling rather bleak about it all.
Radiohead lyrics do often lean towards the dark end of the spectrum; if you skim through the fan reviews of OK Computer on iTunes, you’ll see the phrase “so sad” repeated again and again. This is a quality of Radiohead’s work that can indeed frustrate the listener, and I’ve often wondered, “Can’t these guys do anything funny?” While you can find humor in some Radiohead songs, the wit is often buried in single lines rather than presented as a complete piece of satire.
The absence of humor has caused many people to charge Radiohead with the crimes of taking themselves too seriously and crossing the line into artistic pretentiousness. I don’t see it that way: I see a group of extremely talented musicians who care deeply about their music and have been more than willing to shatter fan expectations and stretch musical boundaries. When you listen to The Bends, it’s easy to imagine the Radiohead of the mid-90s turning into a classic stadium band, playing it safe and raking in the cash. All they had to do was stop growing and keep working the formula.
Instead, they did the exact opposite. The music they created on The Bends also hinted at new musical possibilities, and never satisfied with mediocrity, Radiohead moved in directions that no one could have predicted at the time. Through all the changes, they have managed to continually expand their fan base, and knowing that millions of people around the world still care about quality in music is something I find intensely reassuring. With all the tragic and bizarre news filling our ears today, Radiohead’s enduring popularity is one of the few things I can point to and say, “Maybe the world isn’t as fucked up as I thought it was.”