Where Do We Go From Here? – 20 Years of Radiohead’s The Bends

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radiohead the bends 20

The bends is decompression sickness, resulting from a rapid ascent from depth; tiny bubbles materialize inside a diver’s body from the solution of dissolved gases under pressure. It’s accompanied by aches, fatigue, nausea, shortness of breath, and can result in paralysis or death. And it’s a name that perfectly captures the sound of Radiohead’s second incomparable studio album, which turned twenty on March 13th. In honor of that anniversary, I’ll be returning to this masterpiece, track by track.

1993’s Pablo Honey proved a mixed blessing for the band. The critical reception was lukewarm, with most reviewers drawing parallels to other 90s grunge scene, dubbing Radiohead the British “corporate-funded Nirvana-lite.” I remember seeing “Creep” on the Beavis and Butthead show when I was in my early teens, and recall the imbecilic duo debating the merits of the song:

Butthead: ‘It better start rocking or I’ll really give him something to cry about.’

Beavis: ‘Shut up Butthead, it’s cool. Check it out, check it out! Here it comes…’

At that moment, the Johnny Greenwood’s guitar bursts forth in an exclamation of mopey clamor, those famous three distorted dead notes that capture the self-laceration of an unrequited love. Though initially something of a dud, the merits of those hazy guitars earned “Creep” a re-release as a single, and eventually catapulted the band into the international spotlight. “I wish I was special,” singer Thom Yorke’s laments. In retrospect, one might have muttered the old adage about being careful what you wish for.

Radiohead’s preliminary ambivalence with success was already present on Pablo Honey on tracks like “Anyone Can Play Guitar,” and the following single “Pop Is Dead.” Lyrics like “Pop is dead… it died an ugly death from back catalogue” reveal a growing dissatisfaction with the current state of rock and roll, but the articulation of that frustration remained too direct, too much a product of its beflanneled times. The promise of the band remained nascent, and few might have guessed what they were to evolve into.

And that’s why The Bends is arguably the most important Radiohead album. It’s still grungy, it’s still driven by driving guitars, but it presages what the band is to one day become. The suddenness with which they were thrown into the limelight, and the violent discontent which followed provides the substrate from which the band would arise to develop their distinct dedication to pop experimentation. When investigating the Radiohead archive, one can delineate their progression from grunge mopesters to pop avant gardists.

Pablo Honey’s straightforward foray into the scene yields unintended consequences. The Bends articulates that experience uncertainty (“Where do we go from here?”), but also proffers an answer – “Immerse your soul in love.” And Radiohead does just that, returning to plumb the depths of the musical experimentation they love again, this time without fear of the pains of decompression.  Later, OK Computer appears as a renewal of this ethos. The opening track “Airbag” contains the lines, “I am born again… in an interstellar burst/I am back to save the universe.” The dread is still there, but it’s lined with hope. That hope pushes the band to further investigation and elaboration of itself, which is revealed in Kid A, Amnesiac, and so on.

“Planet Telex” sets the tone immediately. An ethereal zephyr blows in as Yorke declares that, “You can force it, but it will not come,” and reminds us that “everything is still broken.” The elegiac howl of his otherworldly voice unfurls, describing the ennui not only of his condition, but that of every teenager and college student in the mid-nineties. Upon listening again, I’m transported to the uncomfortable couch in my shitty basement apartment in Washington, DC, bemoaning a recent breakup (Anyone who hasn’t sat in a dark room and brooded to a Radiohead album is not to be trusted, like someone who can dance sober). Simultaneously, I’m taken to a college party, arguing the merits of “Black Star” with a tall drunk guy with mutton chops. It’s the unmistakable mark of a great album: it carries the spark that flashes between the moment you’re listening to it and prior associated moments. It’s a wormhole through time, conjuring up memories and sensations long dormant, binding you both to who you are and who you once were. “Why can’t you forget?” That’s simple enough to answer: this album is really fucking great right off the bat, even if everything is broken.

Onward, to the title track. Here, we wallow in the alienation of the postmodern condition. The tinkling-glass windchime effect in the opening ten seconds, followed by the muffled injunction to “Bring it up!” always primes me for that opening guitar detonation. Yorke’s wordless yowl brings everything home, before he launches into a parade of misery-laden lyrics. I’m tempted to reproduce the lines in their entirety here, but anyone reading this probably knows the anxiety described in that song. Still, there’s that plea for hope from the bottom of that blackest of depression wells: “I wanna live, breathe/I wanna be part of the human race.” The song structure is tremendous as well, a clever variation on the loud-quiet-loud arrangement popularized by Yorke’s beloved Pixies. The spasmic outburst expressing that desire to live is muted, though, by the recollection of the uncertainty expressed in those first lines. The effect is haunting.

“High and Dry” provides an acoustically textured contrast to its predecessor’s energy while extending the same shuddering, despaired conclusion. Again, the lyrics are drenched in bitterness, and one wonders if the bits about having to “kill yourself for recognition” and “turning into something you are not” are references to the contortions Radiohead had put themselves through in years prior. It’s a gentle breakdown of a song, a submissive requiem to the loss of “the best thing that you’ve ever had.” The accompanying video always struck me as an odd mishmash, though. The Technicolor melancholy of the diner patrons is appropriate visual complement, but the Pulp Fiction bank robber subplot seemed out of place. I imagine some executive at EMI insisting that the video have an exploding car, lest valuable adrenaline-seeking demographics withdraw their support for the band.

Speaking of videos, the one for “Fake Plastic Trees” is among the saddest and weirdest ever produced. According to legend, Radiohead had a dreadful time recording the song. Yorke had recently seen Jeff Buckley perform, and, after a frustrating day at the studio, Yorke punched in a few takes of the song alone. Afterward, Johnny Greenwood reported that when the band returned, Thom burst into tears. Moreover, this song displays the band’s early rebuke of consumerism. “She looks like the real thing/she tastes like the real thing” is a sly nod to the empty calories of our Coca-Cola world, and the supermarket setting of the video cements their capitalist critique. For years, I was convinced that the song was somehow influenced by Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being, believing that the stanzas “he used to do surgery/for girls in the eighties/but gravity always wins” were clear references to the protagonist Tomáš from the novel. I’m undoubtedly wrong, but I feel it illustrates how great music and great literature interweave, spill over, and inform our experiences, to become part of our subconscious landscapes.

“Bones” and “(Nice Dream)” never became hits, but they’re part of the emotional core of the album. “I used to fly like Peter Pan” is as honest a characterization of depression I’ve heard, and “(Nice Dream)” provides a pleasant intermission from all the downhearted turbulence. Neither would be possible without Yorke’s tortured falsetto. Although it’s been imitated to death since, it’s important to recall that this was 1995. Coolio (who is a Juggalo now) topped the charts. Our poor ears were being subjected to Bush and Hootie and the Blowfish. Van Halen’s “Can’t Stop Lovin’ You” was on the radio, for fuck’s sake. There wasn’t a more timely remedy to this 90s end-of-history malaise than The Bends.

Ah, “Just.” That churning crunch of Greenwood’s guitar provides a soupçon of the rocking clamor of Radiohead’s prior incarnation. The fret-flying furor is mirrored by Thom’s lock-elbowed spasms as he croons like a mescaline vision of Jeff Buckley. The video is another thrilling depiction of wretchedness, the revelation of a secret so debilitating that renders all who hear it paralyzed with despondency. It’s like a Jorge Luis Borges short story, but one scrabbled by the tangles of Greenwood’s sweltering guitar solo.

We come now to the most caustic song on the album, “My Iron Lung,” a self-reflexive examination of how the success of “Creep” had circumscribed the band while simultaneously sustaining them. Radiohead sonically destroys the cumbersome apparatus of their achievements before moving on to “Bullet Proof… I Wish I Was.” Indications of their future development are again present here, the song more akin to OK Computer than anything else on The Bends. “Black Star” and “Sulk” round the album out with more isolated weirdness, reinforcing our collective tragedy in a resigned one-two punch. “Blame it on this sad life that brings me home” could be the thesis statement of the entire album, echoing Faulkner’s quotation, “Given the choice between the experience of pain and nothing, I would choose pain.”

The album closes with “Street Spirit (Fade Out),” which Yorke described as “one of [the band’s] saddest songs” and a “dark tunnel without the light at the end.” The arpeggiated A minor is the perfect haunting coda for the entire effort, dystopian psychedelic perfection. There’s an uneasy tension in its beauty, and one that won’t be resolved entirely until OK Computer, but listening to it again, I found myself drifting away. The sensation is comparable to the desperate need to sleep after a traumatic day, lying on a bed after the funeral of a loved one.

The Bends is an undisputed masterpiece. We find a band in command of their talents, but only just beginning to explore the horizons available to them. We have scope, vision, execution, and energy, all in contradistinction to the sounds of the day. 1995 gave us a lot to love – Pulps’ Different Class, Smashing Pumpkin’s “1979,” Return to the 36 Chambers and Liquid Swords, Wowee Zowee and Washing Machine (it also gave us Mariah Carey and Michael Bolton). Still, nothing bubbles up in your blood quite like The Bends, and you’ll cherish the dull ache it leaves as a reminder that, despite what you’ve endured, you’re still very much alive.

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