Albums Revisited: Radiohead’s The Bends Turns 20: a look back at one of the most revered sophomore albums of all time.
On March 13th, Radiohead’s sophomore album The Bends will celebrate its 20th anniversary. Besides making me feel ancient, it’s also a time to reflect on that album’s legacy, and how it stacks up against Radiohead’s overall discography.
And while I will defend that album to my dying day, one can’t discount the leap in songwriting and approach that went into their sophomore album. And depending on which fan you talk to, The Bends can be seen as just a transitional disc on Radiohead’s journey to electronic tinged dystopian blues, or the last gasp of a great guitar rock band.
Radiohead were feeling pressure to build on the success of Pablo Honey’s smash single Creep and leery of being seen as a one-hit wonder. Frontman Thom Yorke bristled at the band being compared as a cut-rate British version of Nirvana. So they partnered up with producer John Leckie (PiL, Stone Roses, XTC, The Verve) a fellow Brit who gave their discordant alt-rock an expansive sound. He was assisted by recording engineer Nigel Godrich (who would become their go-to producer starting with Ok Computer).
By all accounts it was a trying and extended process with the band trying to forge new sounds and approaches to songwriting.
Their change in approach is clear on the multilayered album opener Planet Telex, where delay-drenched piano gives way to massive swirling guitars, with Yorke bleating out in equal parts relief and agony: Saying, everything is broken/Everyone is broken.
Guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s search for new guitar textures is apparent on tracks like My Iron Lung, with that magically weird, pitch shifted guitar riff acting like a backing vocalist to Yorke’s sarcastic angst.
This, this is our new song
Just like the last one
A total waste of time
My iron lung
The yin and yang of Greenwood’s guitar soundscapes and Yorke’s generational angst are the nucleus that The Bends is sculpted around: the epic scope of classics like Fake Plastic Trees, and Street Spirit (Fade Out) still sound impressive, and fully immersive.
Those songs can be viewed as early templates for the sound the band would explore on OK Computer and beyond. But The Bends would prove a cleaving point for the simple guitar pop-pleasures of High and Dry, or the joyous noise of Just and Bones. Those tunes don’t feel like they have the weight of the world on their shoulders, which would plague every album going forward.
The Bends ends up being one of the most unique albums of the 90’s. It’s too nuanced and understated to align with grunge, and too expansive to mesh with the class-driven narratives of their Britpop contemporaries. This worked against it at first: it didn’t come close to Pablo Honey’s sales in the U.S., peaking at #88 on Billboard charts. But thanks to stellar reviews, and steady sales in their native Britain, it clawed its way to relevancy.
And while it doesn’t nestle comfortably in any definitive 90’s music scene, its moments of unease, moodiness and uncertainty sum up the dilemma of Generation X as fine as any.
Radiohead are working on their latest album, and as always, I hold out a smidgen of hope that they can reconnect on a visceral level with their effusive guitar racket of old. Probably just a (nice dream) on my part, but we shall see…