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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From its first defiant line, “Where do we go from here?”, Radiohead’s landmark releaseThe Bends is a polished bottling of the quintet’s napalm, teething through post-rock classicism and bursting with a tortured falsetto from our beloved Thom Yorke. It combines the darkest tones of rock with a haunting dread that makes it marginally okay to digest it all — even if every song sees no resolution amid the harshness of reality. It feels honest. We’re all aware that making music is no easy feat. Since The Bends has always felt like the product of both ideas and effort, the fact that it sounds like it took neither idea nor effort is an upshot of talent. This is a raw ritual, a visionary blend of brooding texture, tension, spirit, and synth.

So what do Radiohead’s undisputed craftsmanship and self-projection add up to here? After all, the one great theme of this work is that it’s thrilling because it’s just so unassuming. An acoustic-sounding guitar, bass, drums, and striking synth harmonically open up lyricism that creates new possibilities for improv. At the time, no one would have dreamed there was anything lyrical or lean coming from a band who two years prior wrote a song called “Anyone Can Play Guitar”. Yorke’s best lines sound less like they’ve been written with force and more like they’ve just seeped from a conversation or personal thought. “You can force it, but it will not come/ You can taste it, but it will not form,” he murmurs on “Planet Telex”. And later, “Everything is broken/ Everyone is broken” finds him flippant without apology, cerebral without warning. “All your insides fall to pieces,” goes the line from “High and Dry”; returning seconds later with a hurt soaked in passive bitterness, he sings: “You will be the one screaming out.”

With a gentleness whose comforts only a corpse could resist, the cracked cadence of the word “be” during the beautiful “Fake Plastic Trees” plea of “if I could be who you wanted” knocks you off your feet fast enough to swivel you around and catch you again. Of course, the riling guitar-howler “Just” and the barrage of Jonny Greenwood’s strings on “My Iron Lung” tear through bass lines so fast that it purges the air right out of your lungs, but it’s perhaps Pablo Honey’s poppier colorations, marking songs like “Sulk”, that allow Yorke and crew to slather thick coats of dread onto “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”.

You can love this record, because it’s brave, because it’s needed. So “where do we go from here?” Radiohead leaves us with the last line on the album to answer that question: “Immerse your soul in love.”

–Lior Phillips
Senior Staff Writer

01. Planet Telex

by Dusty Henry

I didn’t like Radiohead. Other than their inescapable singles, like “Creep” and “Karma Police”, all I knew about them was hearsay from others that they were incredibly experimental and a bit pretentious. As a misinformed teenager (is there any other kind?), I didn’t want to be a part of anything that stepped outside my rockist view.

I was finally convinced to listen to OK Computer and started to think maybe I’d made a mistake. Then The Bends came into my life. The reverberating piano chords of “Planet Telex” washed over my impressionable mind. The spaced-out introduction quickly erupted into a fury of distortion from Jonny Greenwood, with Thom Yorke’s voice standing up against the maelstrom. His lyrics were vague and ominous, making it easy for me and countless others to slip ourselves into. Yorke lists all the futile acts you can do to “it,” never defining exactly what the “it” is. Then his enigmatic voice rises to the chorus with a rallying cry of “everything is broken, everyone is broken.”

I had been using rock music to understand my own confused emotions, and Yorke captivated me with just how well he understood my dissatisfaction with the world around me. And yet, Radiohead still didn’t feel like the archetype of a rock band I was used to. For lack of a better expression, they were creeps and weirdos. There was an abstractness that I couldn’t put my finger on in the song. Greenwood’s layers of guitars stuttered and hissed beneath the essential moving parts. They were about taking the conventional and breaking it apart. “Planet Telex” was just a herald for what was to come. I’d just need a few more insufferable teenage years before I’d understand it.

02. The Bends

by Dean Essner

Of all Thom Yorke’s quirky lyrical focal points, his fixation on esoteric diseases may be the most interesting. Characters in his songs don’t get cancer; they get myxomatosis. “The Bends” is no different. It refers to a condition that deep-sea divers get upon returning to the surface from great underwater depths. If they swim up toward the surface too fast, dissolved gases in their body can come out of solution in bubbles, causing tremendous amounts of pain, paralysis, and even death.

In “The Bends”, that terrifying disease becomes an allegory of exaggeration — sinking too low, rising too high, doing something too fast. But once the thrill and shock of such a gripping experience is over, normalcy is unachievable. “Just lying in the bar with my drip feed on/ Talking to my girlfriend/ Waiting for something to happen,” he sings, like a battered soldier on medical leave craving the thrill of the battlefield once again.

We can assume that Yorke, though, is simply talking about the exciting world of rock ‘n’ roll here, one that the band was just beginning to taste for the first time prior to the release of this record. Touring, as we learn later in the haunting documentary Meeting People Is Easy, can be a simultaneously alienating and invigorating experience. But mostly it teases an alternate lifestyle that can’t be sustained. On “The Bends”, Yorke tells us what it’s like to swim with the sharks and then shortly after bake on a crowded beach with the rest of civilization, who are just waiting for something to happen, too.

03. High and Dry

by Katherine Flynn

I woke up early with a full-body hangover, the kind that thrums just below your consciousness and makes sleep impossible. Alcohol withdrawal kicks my brain into overdrive now, in my mid-twenties; I replay conversations from the night before until their edges wear thin, re-taste the inhales from cigarettes. My mind started organizing the stories I would tell my best friend later that day, trying to make sense of all of the disparate pieces before I relayed them back to her. The snarky girl from an internship I’d had a million years ago that I ran into at the party. Intangibles, like the way the Capitol and the monument had shimmered in the distance in the view from the deck, over the rooftops of hundreds of houses.

I was, on some level, thinking about “High and Dry”. I’ve heard the song enough times to conjure up the opening notes in my brain, and after I got tired of those few opening strums joining the cacophony of racing thoughts that was already taking place between my ears, I hoisted my laptop onto my bed, found the song in my music library, and hit play.

My boyfriend in late high school and early college loved Radiohead. Kid A was his very favorite, followed by OK Computer. As I made my way through their discography during those years, I found that I could appreciate the later albums for what they were, but nothing got me quite like the earnest, guitar-heavy rush of those first two. The guitar solo in “High and Dry” in particular was pure joy, an unadulterated mimicry of the high provided by the drug that the song is about in the first place.

As I lay in bed with my eyes closed, the early-morning daylight savings sun just starting to ease through my window, all of the swirling thoughts that had been so shrill just a few seconds before started to calm. “You’re turning into something you are not,” Thom Yorke sang, and I felt myself slowly, slowly drifting back under.

04. Fake Plastic Trees

by Henry Hauser

I’m 13, alone, slouched in one of the plum velvet chairs that encircle Dr. Mycroft’s waiting room. The previous night, I’d dreamt of missing my appointment, pissing off Dr. M, and receiving a million fillings as punishment. He also sawed off my big toe and used it to wipe the spittle from my mouth, which was terrifying. Hoping to keep this bizarre nightmare from leaking into my waking life, I left myself two hours to walk the two miles to Dr. M’s office. That’s how I ended up in a dentist’s waiting room with 75 minutes to kill.

Like most children of ‘90s that grew up on the right side of a rock, I never left home without my trusty Sony Discman and cargo pants loaded with CDs. My tastes were haphazard: Gangsta’s Paradise, Jagged Little Pill, and The Bends. Coolio seemed a bit aggressive for a suburban dentist’s office, and I’d already heard “Ironic” a few hundred times on Z100, so I went with Radiohead.

In our early teens, we start noticing the imperfect minutiae that surrounds us. A cracked ceiling tile, some lipstick smeared across an incisor, a carpet stain shaped like Paraguay. These specks of awareness seem somehow significant, as if you’re sneaking a peek behind adulthood’s facade of cleanliness and control. Scanning Dr. M’s office, my eyes passed over a rack of tattered magazines, some yellowing pamphlets about dentures, and a lush, verdant ficus. The plant’s waxy, elliptical leaves caught the morning light, reflecting it onto the taupe wallpaper and forming intricate patterns. I looked around the room to see if anyone else had noticed, but all the adults were either shuffling papers in briefcases or chastising little children. I felt fortunate to have this little moment of beauty all to myself, a spark of vitality within the antiseptic doldrums of a modern-day purgatory.

But as I walked up to the Ficus, eager to feel its lime-green leaves between my fingers, Thom Yorke’s haunting falsetto echoed through my head: “Her green plastic watering can/ For her fake Chinese rubber plant/ In the fake plastic earth.” According to Yorke, “Fake Plastic Trees” was “the product of a joke that wasn’t really a joke, a very lonely, drunken evening and, well, a breakdown of sorts.” Guitarist Jonny Greenwood says that after recording the song’s guide track, Yorke immediately started sobbing. And who could blame him? The song builds from a solitary acoustic guitar and a humming Hammond organ, as Yorke sings of superficiality, deterioration, and loneliness: “She lives with a broken man/ A cracked polystyrene man.” Halfway through, Phil Selway’s drums and Greenwood’s electric guitar kick in, forcing Yorke to howl above the ruckus. The challenge of maintaining a distinct voice amid a world of hollow drones completely drains the singer; he softly whispers, “It wears me out, it wears me out.”

Of course, the ficus was fake. As I sat there, waiting for Dr. M to scrape the grit and grime off my teeth, I felt devastated by the realization everything around me was either decaying or synthetic. Every time I hear “Fake Plastic Trees”, I’m right back there in Dr. Mycroft’s waiting room, hating him, the faux-ficus, and all the adults for being big, fat phonies.

05. Bones

by Kevin McMahon

Luckily for me, when I was young, I had a friend with a sister 10 years our senior. Thus, I was exposed to The Bends immediately, even while I was still in the prime of my Pokémon collecting career. My exposure began, as most suburban stories do, in a then-unfinished basement. Chunky Grimace purple coated the walls, cement floors, and protruding support beams — my mother thought it livelier than the stock steely gray.

My friends and I transformed it into a roller hockey arena complete with to-scale chalk creases and face-off circles. Our only soundtrack was a portable AM/FM radio and the small litter of recommendations from the aforementioned sister. We’d skate around to the album with the funny face on it, enraptured by the emotional music within.

It was only later that I realized the jangly bass line of “Bones” had been one of my favorites. Something about the rhythm’s combination with notes of heavily distorted tremolo spoke to me. I couldn’t understand much of what the man was singing, but his lamenting on bones was a sticking point for me. I have always been fascinated with the concept of bones and the romantic feel the word carries as it rolls off of your tongue. Bones are the most basic structural part of the body. Bones are what I first thought of when I began to wonder if my consciousness was separate from my physicality.

As I got older, I came to understand that “Bones” is actually a story about the strong connection of physical and mental anguish. “Prozac, painkillers” — two mediums used to fight the missing pieces and connected aches Yorke sings of in the song. It’s a feeling of total weakness I believe we all can relate to. Not exactly where the song lead me in my youth, but fuck it, that’s poetry for you. I will always romanticize bones, just as I will always romanticize my purple days of unadorned roller hockey.

06. (Nice Dream)

by Nina Corcoran

“Nice dream” is one of the few appropriate responses to give when a friend’s overwritten text about their dream from the evening prior pops up on your phone. It’s usually undecipherable. Given space to roam, our minds run recklessly, and attempting to connect the reasoning of it all is half the fun. We love to recount that mangled mischief. On “(Nice Dream)”, that’s exactly what Radiohead allows its song to do.

Acoustic guitar opens up the pathway for specificities of familial acceptance and self-sustaining happiness. This isn’t reality, they remind us. Don’t get too caught up. Thom Yorke sings the title with an airy coo that soon breaks into festered pain. No matter your age, it hits with melancholic weight. Backed by electric guitars, Yorke’s yelp elongates itself into the twisted nightmare we find ourselves in more often than we wish.

No matter how many formal string sections are taped to the refrain, it’s the title’s spelling that gives it a haunting edge. The placement of those parentheses in “(Nice Dream)” defines the chorus. Every time Yorke repeats “nice dream,” I wonder who he’s talking to. Is it me as the listener? Is it himself as a sarcastic spit? Is it his younger self as a defeated laugh? The placement of those two semi-circles turned the phrase into an aside, and I wouldn’t sleep until I decoded whose name was written down as the receiver.

Years later, it became apparent that he put the parentheses there as a way of noting its open nature. Like every “Oh my God” variant in Pavement’s “Shady Lane”, “(Nice Dream)” was an all-encapsulating phrase. Everyone gets roped in with ambivalent spaciousness about our deadbeat aspirations, and together we share a single brainwave in the nighttime but fail to notice the company of misery through closed eyes.

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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