I sat alone in my college library writing down something I didn’t care about while the track “Fake Plastic Trees” carefully played about through my ears. I stared out into the New Mexico desert and felt isolated, lonely, depressed, tired and distraught. Would I be able to make it through these four years of art school and become something successful? What is Thom Yorke singing about when he says, “A green plastic watering can / A fake Chinese rubber plant / In the fake plastic earth”? All I know is that I felt alienation, isolation, plastic, fakeness. Was I the one who was fake? What could I do to right this wrong?
The Bends is the second studio album by Radiohead. This was the follow-up to their debut, Pablo Honey, which contained the massive single “Creep”. What could a band do that would give enough justice to such a powerful song from the '90s that rode on the waves of grunge and indie rock? What could a band do to make the sophomore effort worth everyone’s time? Such a monumental task was running through the band's mind and the history of studio tension and angst nearly caused a break up. What happened though is that they grew into their own, carefully crafting out an album worthy of their own praise, disregarding what the critics thought (#4 in the U.K. charts). This was an evolution, as tracks began to break away and tear apart from the inside out. Considered one of the best guitar albums ever made, The Bends is a wealth of treasure worth the time and effort to learn, know, and become a part of. There are moments of future endeavors sprinkled throughout; showcasing what we all know was to come with their next album and each subsequent follow-up, but this one was the turning point for many.
First lead off single “High and Dry” was a genuine pop song, neatly arranged to the band's displeasure as something a bit artificial. Despite being a great song, they haven’t played it in nearly a decade. This sort of benign attitude would accompany the band to the present day, thus showcasing their attention to detail that is unforgiving and confrontational in regards to what people thought was normal music. The Bends was Radiohead’s last straightforward rock effort. Most of the songs are somber, mellow and slightly depressing, hidden amongst nice jangly guitars and acoustic flourishes. Johnny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien, the two-man superhero guitar team, are readily accomplished here as they produced very nice, interesting hooks and graceful melodies. The strums aren’t so much as heavy as they are concocted with precision and grace. This album was lumped in with the Britpop movement of time, but no one really did guitar work as well. Unfortunately the duo almost abandoned this style of playing as well. Future releases never sounded this open and free. And as for bassist Colin Greenwood and drummer Phil Selway, the rhythm section has always been another highlight for the band. Greenwood’s bass has always kept a nice, audible groove and Selway’s drumming is never handled with more than it should be.
“Planet Telex” is a great opening number, giving off a sort of atmospheric outer space feel while Yorke gets more cryptic than ever. The change from personal, to social and global worry, showed a difference in maturity and a more immediate response. Yorke also changed up his vocal style, approaching the album with a more angst-laden falsetto, (popularizing it…) and making each song stand out on its own. Other numbers like “(Nice Dream)” and “Bullet Proof…I Wish I Was” give an intimate nature, like a man alone in his room recording something for himself. It’s a nice departure from what Pablo Honey had, and when carefully listened to, one can see how later songs like “Exit Music (For a Film),” “How to Disappear Completely” and “Nude” came about for them. There is also a noodly jam during the chorus to "Bullet Proof," later on to be tried again in the song "Nude." A nice little bit to seek out for those purists. And in regards to purists, the various B-sides to this album are worth seeking out as well. “Talk Show Host,” “Indian Rubber,” “The Trickster” and “Permanent Daylight” are among some great songs that shouldn’t be forgotten, but were wisely left off the initial album for good reason. Twelve tracks were enough to get their point across.
The last three numbers are the rear end of the ship; a nice close to an emotional, thoughtful, moment-in-time snapshot. “Black Star” is about a failed relationship: “I get home from work and you're still standing in your dressing gown / well what am I to do? / I know all the things around your head / and what they do to you / What are we coming to? / What are we gonna do?” “Sulk” is an overwrought, depressing song which the title best describes what it means… sulking. “You bite through the big wall / the big wall bites back / You just sit there and sulk / Sit there and bawl.” No wonder Yorke was labeled the next "rock 'n' roll martyr” at the time. And lastly is closing song “Street Spirit (Fade Out).” Beginning with desperate, eerie guitars, reminiscent of some sort of classical arrangement, the song builds up and up as each band member adds to the structure. Yorke’s vocals begin to soar as the drums kick the tempo and the guitars strum more quickly. The rhythmic nature of the song is always haunting, lacking in any sort of present being. More and more gradually, the song reaches for a sort of last breath to hold onto, making the listener contemplate what’s going to happen at the end. When all is said and done though, fading out is the right word here as the track reaches to its climax and quietly dispels its tight grasp.
Radiohead, critic darlings and cult favorites. The gap between what is modern and what is art has always been in their shadow. People often don’t know what to expect from the band these days. What stands as Radiohead’s accomplishment though, is that they still remain mainstream and inspirational, no matter what anyone says, but also stay rooted in their craft. If it isn’t for their works, then maybe it’s for their honest direction to do what they want and to create what they want. Always looking forward, but not so much in past, Radiohead are modern expressionists, minimalists and entrepreneurs of their own music world. The Bends really was the beginning of the end, but also the re-birth of something new.