Dusting 'Em Off
Revisiting an album, a film, or an event on its anniversary

Radiohead’s The Bends Turns 20

on March 13, 2015, 12:00pm
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07. Just

by Dan Bogosian

Do you remember your first Radiohead moment? Mine wasn’t “Creep” in 1994. It wasn’t “Karma Police” on Now 1, some inescapable blog buzz, or the then-groundbreaking release of In Rainbows. I was 10 and saw the music video to “Just”, and my mind was blown: a man lays down in traffic because of something he heard — or just, something — and then at the end, everyone who hears why is forced to lay down. I was 10 and felt like it tapped into some greater mystery of life.

The song itself fields some of the finest early guitar work from the band, from the way the bass shares the melody to how Greenwood’s strings jangle just a tad earlier than everybody else’s before the solo. It’s musically genius — the way they interact, the way the light shines on acoustic guitar, than bass and guitar, the twisted noise and the clean chord work. Yorke’s poetry spews out, bathing in a melodramatic melancholy that probably wouldn’t be reprised until OK Computer.

Everybody’s got a different favorite Radiohead album; I used to categorize them by mood and weather. OK Computer was a work compute: “Fitter, happier, more productive.” Amnesiac was stressing in the rain and Kid A was depressive in the snow. The Bends felt like a collection of pop songs with too many different moods to fit one thing, but “Just” isn’t like that; its chorus acts like the ultimate depressive motto. They might say “you do it to yourself,” but Radiohead does it to me every time.

08. My Iron Lung

by Brian Josephs

With the exception of the love book that’s In Rainbows, Radiohead has kept this constant undercurrent of existential malaise. It’s this tension between self-afflicted obliteration and interpersonal numbness. There’s not that much room for a win here.

“My Iron Lung” was one of Radiohead’s most acute articulations of that theme before Kid A. It’s close to “Creep” in structure: a bass-driven groove followed by this frayed guitar tear that snuffs out Thom Yorke’s anguish. But what separates “Creep” and “My Iron Lung” is what separates J. Cole from Kendrick Lamar. “My Iron Lung”/Kendrick Lamar reaches a level of specificity that feels uncomfortably intimate. Yorke’s “I don’t belong here” and his admittance at the hook is what I’d assume to be emblematic of the times, but it’s too broad of a sentiment — who hasn’t felt as such at one point? He’s preaching to the choir, as they say.

When I listen to “My Iron Lung”, I feel like there’s something burrowing itself in the bone and unfurling from there, an experience that’s as disconcerting as it is addicting — the drones, the random clean strums, the helter-skelter solo Jonny Greenwood throws in at the end as if it’s threatened by being swallowed whole by the soundscape. If the common praise for “My Iron Lung” includes something along the lines of “it has more teeth,” then Yorke’s nihilism is the canines. It’s both self-eviscerating (“This is our new song/ Just like the last one/ A total waste of time”) and scathing (“We are losing it/ Can’t you tell?”).

You know the world isn’t so glum; Radiohead was a quintet of punks in their 20s before they became one of the greatest bands ever. But even then, it felt like shaking them off as such would be careless.

09. Bullet Proof…I Wish I Was

by Michael Roffman

Bill Hicks was fearless. Terrifying, even. He didn’t just stand on the stage; he presided over it. There’s a difference: He could say, do, or think about anything and know that he could get away with it. Much of this was simply intellect, but a large part of this was confidence. He didn’t just know he was right; he felt it.

So it’s fitting that The Bends was dedicated to the late comic. The album wasn’t quite as assured as its follow-up, OK Computer , but it did mark an initial push to dig deeper and embrace a more honest point of view than the regurgitated angst of Pablo Honey. Still, Yorke was years away from being the confident auteur we champion today, and it’s in this early, shaky demeanor that the album finds solace.

And Yorke has never been so fragile as on “Bullet Proof…I Wish I Was”. Over a light flurry of instrumentation — a tearful example of Jonny Greenwood’s minimalistic prowess — the songwriter mediates on his own ignobility, admitting he’s hurt by the smallest of things and tortured by the heaviest of horrors. He relates more to a voodoo doll than a human being, prone to emotional disasters outside of his own control.

He wants to be bulletproof. We get that. What’s telling, though, is the subtle paranoia toward the end, when he mutters: “I could burst a million bubbles, all surrogate.” Not only is he perplexed by his own unstable constitution, but he’s curiously horrified (in a narcissistic twist) of offending the lives of others. Which means, in theory, he’s shut himself off from the world.

Irony is what attracted the English to Hicks, as The Guardian’s John Lahr supposed in his 1994 obituary of the man. It’s also what has fueled Radiohead for decades and likely more to come. “We quite like dark humour,” Jonny Greenwood explained in a 1998 interview, noting that “[Hicks] saw things quite accurately, I think.”

Now, it’s possible the dedication to Hicks was really just that: an ode as longtime fans and admirers. (After all, it was a very funereal period of time for cult heroes and icons.) But there’s something deep within “Bulletproof…” that’s spiritually connected to the carnal Texas mastermind. Something hopefully honorary even.

Maybe it’s the bubbles.

10. Black Star

by Ryan Bray

While it was the bulk of Radiohead’s post-2000 output that won the band its reputation as one of the best in all the land, it’s become increasingly easy over the years to forget just how good they were before they got lost in the world of jazz, krautrock, and electronic experimentation.

To wit, we have The Bends, as lush and near-flawless a guitar rock record as you’re going to find anywhere. Just one guy’s opinion, but to me, this is the record that cements Radiohead’s legacy, at least in retrospect. Forgetting for a second how far they would stretch their sound in the following years, The Bends proves they probably could have been just as successful if they’d stayed the melodic pop rock course. They had a gorgeous hit record that even then listeners knew was bound to stand the test of time, and they chose to move radically off course into something new and uncharted. That’s the Radiohead legacy in a nutshell: never complacent and always striving.

The Bends is loaded with guitar rock jams both delicate and ornately cranky, but one of the record’s relatively unsung gems falls near the end. Track 10, “Black Star”, is a cut that sums up the record’s entire feel: heartfelt and sweetly melodic, but accented by just enough guitar rock teeth without chewing the song to pieces. It’s not a song that jumps out at you, but one that gets lost in the weeds amid “High and Dry”, “Fake Plastic Trees”, and other Radiohead favorites. In the same manner that it slowly, delicately fades in, it’s a song that sneaks up on you. Last time I saw the band in 2012, it was “Black Star” that left the strongest impression in a set overwhelmed by songs off The King of Limbs and In Rainbows. Perhaps that says it all.

11. Sulk

by Steven Arroyo

According to the anonymous philosophy professor that Vice interviewed in November regarding the much-shared T Magazine interview with Jaden and Willow Smith — and sure, Sartre or some historical philosopher, too — all instances of bad faith can fall under two basic categories in existentialism: “One kind of bad faith is not owning what you’ve been and what you’ve done, and the other … is not owning the fact that you’re a free agent who has the power to do things differently in the future.”

I cite that guy because I’d rather not pretend I picked that up in an actual textbook instead of a passing comment in a blog post, but I do know that bad faith might be the toughest enemy we ever battle, all of us. So does Thom Yorke. “Just like your dad/ You’ll never change,” he sings in the resolving chorus on “Sulk”.

There is no burn in all the possible avenues of communication quite as succinct and cutting as that one. The notion alone, the loitering thought that it could be true that our own blood always nullifies our free will, even without a shred of hard evidence, has crushed lives, careers, marriages, people who otherwise had perfect balance in their pockets, since the dawn of deadbeat dads.

Is it a dig at someone specific? Is the idea “eating [him] alive”? Is it just an innocuous replacement for the supposed original lyric, “Just shoot your gun/ You’ll never change,” supposedly written in reaction to the 1987 Hungerford massacre? It could be all of the above, it could be none, and it doesn’t matter. Once a question is planted in the brain, the fists of its implications are within striking distance.

12. Street Spirit (Fade Out)

by Kristofer Lenz

With “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”, Radiohead crossed the Rubicon, leaving the shore behind a smoldering ruin. If this tone, this method, this willingness to defy convention didn’t work, there was no going back. The band seemed to make a conscious decision to abandon the direct, alternative power pop that had suddenly made them famous, and use their newfound independence to dissect, upend, and reconstruct rock music on the way to becoming a dominant cultural force.

It didn’t happen all at once, of course. “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” contains elements of the past around hints of what was to come. The recessive, mind-expanding traits can be heard in doses on Pablo Honey and in scattered fragments throughout The Bends (the swinging cymbal ride and cyclical guitar screech that open “Sulk”, for example). But looking back now, we’re quick to forget that nothing about Radiohead’s ascendance to global, zeitgeist-defining artistry was preordained. Following “Creep”, Radiohead could have easily misstepped on album two and wound up in the ’90s trivia dustbin with Marcy Playground and Mazzy Star. Instead, by combining pop songcraft with churning, scuzzy chord progressions and wailed themes of alienation, they assembled a near-flawless ’90s rock album.

“Street Spirit (Fade Out)” provides a resounding bookend to the parade of ready-for-alternative-radio hits. With no arena-friendly chorus or shouted refrain, it rejects the formula so effective earlier on the same album. Tension follows from the swing of a repeating arpeggiated guitar line, engaged time and time again by growing harmonic weight: a driving drum line, swelling strings, and finally three levels of vocal harmony. In crescendo, Yorke’s solitary voice rises, intoning the words, “Immerse your soul in love.” His voice stretches and melts into the other instruments, wordless but powerful. His keening call defies words and becomes something more primal — something that redefined the history of music that followed.

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