Friday, August 17, 2007

No. 110: The Bends

Band: Radiohead
Album: The Bends
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: "The Bends" has all the seeds of the art-rock opuses Radiohead would pursue on later albums. The hard rock of "Just," the bent production of "Planet Telex" and the soft-spoken balladry of "High and Dry" all portend the strange progressive rock Radiohead would later nearly perfect in the post-Nirvana late '90s. It's a brilliant piece of just-left-of-center music that still sounds great today.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: A lot depends on what's important to the list. If influence and epicness are the most important things to an album' greatness, "OK Computer" is the pick for best Radiohead record. If you're looking at straight-up great songs, "The Bends" is the right choice.
Best song: "Fake Plastic Trees" was the hit and it's a wonderfully somber slow burner. "Bullet Proof... I Wish I Was" is fantastic. "(Nice Dream)" is great, "Bones" features the best non-"Karma Police" Thom Yorke falsetto and "Just" kicks ass. Frankly speaking, "The Bends" is amazing.
Worst song: The only non-brilliant songs on the album is "Sulk."
Is it awesome?: One thousand times yes.

It's pretty amazing to think that the Radiohead we know today -- the one of "Kid A," "Amnesiac" and "OK Computer" -- is the same band that put out "Creep" in 1993. A melancholy ode to self-hate, the single is fun to recount now, but at the time was just another post-grunge piece of nonsense.

"Creep" is not on "The Bends" -- arguably Radiohead's "Rubber Soul" -- but the song's reverberations are felt throughout the band's sophomore effort. Quite simply, everything I've read says "The Bends" is mostly a reaction to the success that "Creep" brought the band. For one, the album title is a reference to decompression sickness -- the feeling of disorientation and possible health effects when air pressure rapidly changes outside the body.

Illness and disorientation fill the album. The frequently remixed, keyboard-heavy track is lyrically filled with heartache as Yorke croons "Everything is broken, everyone is broken."

Illness reappears on one of the two most "Creep"-influenced tracks, "My Iron Lung." The song's lyrics count both physical and mental maladies ("We scratch our eternal itch," "My brain says I'm receiving pain," etc.) and the overt metaphor of the iron lung -- something that both holds someone in place but also sustains him -- is a clear reference to "Creep":

This, this is our new song
Just like the last one
A total waste of time
My iron lung

The song takes a great deal from Nirvana (some have even suggested the riff is ripped off from "Heart-Shaped Box), a comparison the band shunned, mostly because Yorke was anointed successor to Cobain by much of the U.K. music press.

The second "Creep"-influenced song is album's title track. Yorke has confirmed in many interviews that the song is about "knowing who your friends are," a typical quick success complaint. "Creep" was an instant hit and brought Radiohead a great deal of success very quickly, thus brining the sudden increase in pressure (not unlike a diver rising to the surface, thus getting decompression sickness or "the bends"). The fame-hating is clearly evident on the song's climax, as Yorke proclaims "I wanna live, breathe, I wanna be part of the human race."

The song's straight ahead instrumentation is also fantastic. The wall-of-sound guitar work by the band's three player (Jonny Greenwood, Ed O'Brien and Yorke) largely makes the song.


One of the problems with "The Bends" was that it was commonly lumped together with the Britpop genre of mid-90s music that was popular for about ten minutes. "The Bends" is nothing like Blur or Oasis or any other such nonsense. It's not anything like that. Oasis and Blue aren't exactly pushing any envelopes and while "The Bends" isn't "OK Computer," it's relatively avant garde, lyrically. Certainly the production has less sheen than the Oasises or Blurs of the world.


It's really nice to look at an album like "The Bends" again. I -- like most people -- have mostly thought of Radiohead in terms of their last four albums and have mostly forgotten "The Bends." That's foolish.

Also, it's nice to finally listen and write about something I really like. The last couple of weeks have been filled (mostly) by crap I don't like or stuff that just isn't for me. "The Bends" isn't that. "The Bends" is great and it's right in my wheelhouse. It's atmospheric rock in a progressive vein. I don't think it's totally crazy to fancy Radiohead the new Pink Floyd. While "The Bends" isn't close to "Dark Side Of The Moon" -- few albums are -- it's a fantastic record that holds up on repeated listens.

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