Bleak, depressing, brilliant. Radiohead’s transformation is complete
When The Bends came out in 1995, Radiohead went from being a relatively obscure cult band into international rock stars, where suddenly they were the latest musical darlings of a post-Cobain world desperately looking for answers. And for all the group’s cynical, moribund tendencies, on their second album, they had a winning formula: depression you can sing along to.
Thom Yorke may still have been suffering from a serious case of self loathing and general detestation of humanity; however throughout the record he emerges with a new-found purpose, not to mention artistic confidence. Whatever had happened between the release of their first LP and this album, it obviously did wonders for their creativity, because The Bends is an absolute triumph from beginning to end.
The line is cast with “Planet Telex”, which opens the album, drawing the listener in with its atmospheric tension and Yorke’s world weary vocals, “You can force it but it will not come/You can taste it but it will not form… Everything is broken/Everyone is broken.” On title track “The Bends”, the band rock out with a multitude of heavily layered guitars and more of Yorke’s psychologically disaffected lyrics. On “High and Dry” is a bitter-sweet rejection of fame and all that it entails. That it would become one of their most popular songs, almost an anthem if you will, isn’t surprising considering that the tune, whether deliberately or no, seems tailor made for radio, despite the words: “You’d kill yourself for recognition/Kill yourself to never stop/You broke another mirror/You’re turning into something you are not.” Imagine U2 writing that? Not on your Nellie. Yorke has since gone on to almost disown himself from it, describing as “very bad”.
Not so “Fake Plastic Trees”, where Yorke’s disgust at commercial culture is on full display, employing his frail and wraith-like falsetto to assassinate every aspect of what he sees as a fake and fabricated existence, especially in the lines “He used to do surgery/For girls in the ‘80s/But gravity always wins.” There is a certain majesty to this song, one that would likely inform them on their next record, from the gentle acoustic strum at the start, to the near cinematic climax toward the end. “Bones” and “(Nice Dream)” are both dripping with overwhelming disillusionment, whether aimed at the music industry or simply reality itself. “Just” is Radiohead’s most Nirvana like track, most notably on the opening riff, along with the obligatory loud-quiet structure throughout. Jonny Greenwood’s guitar has stadium epic stamped all over it, as does the immediately accessible “My Iron Lung”, a song which first appeared as the main track of a mini-LP released a few months before the album, and one Cobain himself could have written.
“Bullet Proof… I Wish I Was” is a delicate supplication for protection from an increasingly parasitic world, before the band go all stadium-rock again on the pessimistic “Black Star”. On “Sulk”, Yorke’s voice soars above a cacophony of guitars, like another desperate plea to be left alone by a man who is still deep within a child.
Any other band might have been tempted to finish the album on a positive note, but not Radiohead. “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” is perhaps one of their dreariest this side of Emily Dickinson. It’s as if Yorke is staring into the void, while the void is staring back: “Cracked eggs/Dead birds/Scream as they fight for life/I can feel death/Can see its beady eyes.” But for all its chill melancholic tendencies, there is a slight redemption in the final coda, where Thom entreats you to “Immerse your soul in love.”
Above all else, The Bends has an almost unbearably human quality to it, full of suffering and excessive pathos. This was Radiohead’s Dark Side of the Moon moment, where all their individual talents coalesced into one. From here on, despite their own self doubt and contempt for fame, the band would achieve what was unthinkable just a couple of years previous. That is, become a worldwide sensation, whether they really wanted to or not.