Revisiting ‘The Bends’ at 20

“You can force it, but it will not come. You can taste it, but it will not form. You can crush it but it’s always here.” Thom Yorke still sounds exactly the same on “Telex Planet,” the opening track of Radiohead’s second album “The Bends.” Even after 20 years Yorke’s voice remains unchanged, floating above the vibrating, distorted guitars on the opening track. Despite its 1995 release the album still retains a somewhat universal quality, as The Atlantic’s Spencer Kornhaber commented earlier this year: “Listening to ‘The Bends’ now reminds that this great band is great not only because it gives form to a certain dark and unspeakable truth about modern life, but that it can, when it wants, defy it.”

“The Bends” represents a transitional time for the now legendary band, as they tried to follow up the enormous success of their single “Creep” released in 1992. Their first album “Pablo Honey” saw mediocre reviews and lukewarm reception, and the band found themselves on the precipice of becoming a one-hit-wonder or being simply labelled as a lesser member of Nirvana’s descendants. In the recording of “The Bends” the band was reportedly constantly in conflict, to the point of nearly breaking up, but eventually 1995 saw the release of the album.

To those familiar with Radiohead’s work, “The Bends” sounds almost too happy; too simple, too normal. And it is true — this album is closer in spirit to the simple, grungey goodness of “Creep” than it is to the abstract, experimental and somewhat bizarre construction of their later work. Nevertheless, the tracks on this album are Radiohead through and through, but instead of truly pushing boundaries they remain within the realm of guitar and drum; chorus and bridge. The songs are comparatively simple, but driving, catchy and an embodiment of 90’s rock in all the right ways.

The most striking thing about the album may be the dissonance between Yorke’s lyrics and the often uplifting, air-guitaring nature of the songs themselves. Yorke has never exactly written inspirational lyrics to put it mildly, but they reach a kind of peak of blackness in “The Bends.” Yorke’s writing took a cryptic, sub-textual nature in later work, but here they are plain and painful, as is evidenced in “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” as he belts out “I can feel death, see it’s beady eyes” over the syncopated layers of guitar and drums. Today it seems uncharacteristic for Yorke, but again, the album is somewhat of a transition for the band.

Standing from a viewpoint 20 years in the future, and knowing all we know now, it is easy to see “The Bends” as a mere stepping stone for Radiohead on its path to chart-topping, genre-bending position today. But it is important to recognize the context of the album in the mid-90’s. “The Bends” does sound like a cousin of the Nirvana grunge wave, but that’s for a reason: (almost) all bands become initially successful by striking a chord with the popular music of their day. What separates a timeless band from a successful band is the ability to overcome and break the boundaries of their day, and bring us along for the ride.

This is what is so important about “The Bends”: in this album you can hear that transition. Listen intently, past the simple, gritty guitar riffs and distorted synths and you can hear everything to come. Despite the monumental changes that Radiohead has undergone in the last two decades, you can still go back to the roots, and trace them all the way to modern day. So what’s the takeaway? Listen closely: the next Radiohead may be hiding in a top-10 hit today. Listen deeper; it’s all there.