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Saturday, January 20, 2018

Radiohead: The Bends

RADIOHEAD: THE BENDS (1995)

1) Planet Telex; 2) The Bends; 3) High And Dry; 4) Fake Plastic Trees; 5) Bones; 6) (Nice Dream); 7) Just; 8) My Iron Lung; 9) Bullet Proof... I Wish I Was; 10) Black Star; 11) Sulk; 12) Street Spirit.

General verdict: The best mix of crunch, beauty, and tragedy in Radiohead history.

The tragedy of The Bends is that it is a rock album. As we are all supposed to know, Radiohead's greatest achievement before humanity was to transcend the boundaries of a stale and uninspired musical genre and take all those who agreed to buy tickets on a magical journey into allegedly uncharted territories. That achievement was unveiled with OK Computer, was generally com­pleted with Kid A, and continued to be embroidered with various extra ornaments in the 21st century. In light of this, The Bends gets critical respect as «that one album where Radiohead began to carve out their own territory», and people generally like it, but usually still treat it as a formative record, because... well, you know, it's just rock. At least it's not «only rock'n'roll», but, overall, isn't it boring and close-minded to let yourself be too infatuated with a rock album from one of history's greatest trans-rock bands? («Trans-rock» sounds a bit off, but I cannot write «post-rock» because that term has been ordered to apply to GY!BE and Sigur Rós, and Radio­head, apparently, are neither one nor the other).

Assuming, however, that you are allowed to doubt that Radiohead have genuinely and completely rewritten musical history as you know it, and to think of Radiohead as merely an artistic unit with noble artistic purposes, there is no other album in the Radiohead catalog that would strike me as being more sincere, adequate, hard-hitting, and pretty much flawless on all fronts than The Bends. The technical and melodic means with which they were achieving their goals, at this point, were clearly more limited than even two years later, let alone five: yet somehow, with those limited means, they were able to create a memorable emotional roller coaster — accessible, tasteful, deeply humanistic, each and every note of which rings true.

Sure, the primary subject of Radiohead's art has always stayed the same: a deeply felt Welt­schmerz, a mix of sorrow, pity, and tenderness that would be most appropriate in a post-nuclear world, but can be put to good use even before we start blowing each other to bits. In that respect, there is not a lot of difference between Pablo Honey and In Rainbows, not to mention anything that lies in between. The Bends are, however, different in that the album reflects Radiohead at their most unspoiled — they were not trying to jump over their own heads yet, as they would be doing two years later, and they were not «Radiohead The Great», owing it to the world to deliver a new musical direction with each new album. But, on the other hand, they had clearly progressed since Pablo Honey, in each and every respect possible, from lyrics to production to formal stylistic diversity. The result, in my opinion, is a perfect balance between style and substance that only really lasted for this one album.

Yes, The Bends consists of songs, rather than small, autonomous, enigmatic sonic universes. But each of these songs is at least efficient, and at best, stunningly efficient. Vulnerability, suffering, inability to cope in a complex and largely irrational world, fear of personal relationships, and other nice things like that that rise high above, say, Donald Trump's level of understanding, form the basis for all twelve cuts, and in the hands of a creative entity that would be only slightly less talented than Radiohead, this could spell disaster — few things are more awful than having some talentless, but sensitive whiner whine his way through 50 minutes of music, instead of doing the right thing and joining the army or applying for a degree in plumbing. (Not naming any names here, but, on a totally unrelated note, give my regards to Conor Oberst when you see him).

Fortunately, the first thirty seconds of ʽPlanet Telexʼ are enough to show us that this here will be whining done with class and power. Space noises for the opening, psycho-echoey Rhodes piano, big trip-hoppy drums, and Colin Greenwood's deep funky bass provide crunch even before the electric guitars kick in. As Thom comes in with the line about how "you can force it but it will not come", you can almost literally hear him grunting and groaning, as if pushing against a brick wall. The entire song is one big ball of unreleasable tension, with each new "everything is bro­ken!" higher and higher than it was, yet the song never gets proper release — at the end, the singer simply gives up, with a few tired "why can't you forget"s conveying the overall futility of the effort. It is one of the best songs ever written about fighting against insurmountable odds, so whenever you find yourself in a rut, remember that Radiohead circa 1995 fully understands your plight. Some people might concentrate too much on the walls of guitar noise and call this little masterpiece «just another grunge song», but it isn't! It's closer to R&B, really — just follow that bassline. With a few space rock trimmings to boot.

I am not going to dissect every single song here — that would take up way too much space — but rather limit myself to a few general points, illustrated by specific material. First and foremost, I do believe that The Bends captures Thom Yorke at the peak of his vocal talents: at this point, he knows how to get the best out of his voice without wasting it on risky experiments that do not always pay off. Case in point #1: ʽFake Plastic Treesʼ, possibly the single best song Radiohead ever wrote (though ʽLuckyʼ comes close). Across the verses, Thom sounds subtly sneery and sarcastic, using a nasal, haughty, a little condescending tone — in the chorus, it abruptly changes to one of pity and sympathy — then, as the subject surreptitiously changes from social critique à la Kinks (remember ʽPlastic Manʼ?) to the protagonist himself (here be a Great Modernist Lyrical Expansive Shift), he concludes the song with the tenderest of falsetto ambiguities: "if I could be who you wanted... all the time" is smoother than Paul McCartney, but you can never understand if he is trying to serenade his "fake plastic love" with this conclusion or to mournfully confess that true happiness with the "fake plastic love" is unattainable... anyway, I might be spewing nonsense here, so let us just hold on to the main point: Thom's verse / chorus contrast, gaining in intensity with each new verse, is a tour de force, and one of the best mixtures of sarcasm and sympathy in the history of vocal pop music.

Another point: sure enough, the «loud vs. quiet» dynamics is a trademark of the grunge genre, but Radiohead know how to exploit that dynamics in a completely different way. So yes, perhaps a song like ʽJustʼ is technically built on the ʽSmell Like Teens Spiritʼ formula: a few suspenseful acoustic chords, a crash-boom-banging loud-as-heck instrumental preview of the chorus, quiet verse, loud chorus, quiet verse, loud chorus... but the loud parts are not just about venting your frustration, they are about taking off and escaping into open space — this is what Greenwood's guitar with its spiralling trills is trying to do from the fifth second on, before, ultimately, trium­phantly, it is able to do just that at 3:10 into the song, with that single extended ultrasonic note. Or take ʽ(Nice Dream)ʼ — its quiet part is melancholic dream-pop, and its loud part is an inter­ruptive nightmare, with the whole ensemble more reminiscent of a Miyazaki movie than a teen hormonal explosion. As for the chaotic ruckus on ʽMy Iron Lungʼ, that part almost feels parodic to me (in the vein of Blur's ʽSong 2ʼ) — together with lyrics like "suck, suck your teenage thumb, toilet-trained and dumb", this is an ironic piece, which seems to agree with the general notion that the song was really a reflection on the popularity of ʽCreepʼ.

Finally, there are simply way too many great Greenwood guitar moments on this album for me not to count it as his finest hour, too (well, again, closely matched by OK Computer). The simple, short, but indie-beautiful solo on ʽHigh And Dryʼ. The banshee howls in the nightmare part of ʽ(Nice Dream)ʼ. The space launch in ʽJustʼ. The climactic multi-layered solo on ʽSulkʼ. The haunting, mournful arpeggiated picking on ʽStreet Spiritʼ, allegedly inspired by R.E.M. but sadder in spirit than any Peter Buck melody I am familiar with. Even when formally staying in grunge / alt-rock territory, Greenwood somehow manages to stay consistently interesting (unless I am actually ascribing some of his virtues to Ed O'Brien, but in the end, this really does not matter). Thus, ʽBlack Starʼ might be one of the lesser numbers on here, but I like how there's at least four completely different guitar parts here — the folksy jangle in the intro, the tremolo dream-pop guitar ambience in the verse, the grungy goo in the chorus, and the little Sixties-style pop flourishes that link the verse to the chorus. Might not seem like much, but the average alt-rock band would never even begin to bother with all this coloring.

And when you look back on it all, really, I am not sure that emotionally The Bends does not exhaust the full spectrum that Radiohead are capable of. Sure, a lot of the lyrics deal with personal relation­ships rather than human society as a whole, but has anybody ever truly been interested in what Thom Yorke has to say about human society as opposed to how he is saying it?... so there is nothing that makes, say, ʽParanoid Androidʼ or ʽKarma Policeʼ or ʽIdiothequeʼ inherently superior to ʽFake Plastic Treesʼ, other than additional layers of complexity and formal innovation. Anyway, this review is not here to put blemish on future works by this band: it is here to stress that The Bends has twelve songs, and each of them rules, with its own hooks, sub-moods, and production / arrangement peculiarities, so that it is only on a purely conjectural and theoretical level that I could build a case for The Bends not representing Radiohead at their finest. And personally, I have no need for any such conjectures or theories.

Fans will naturally want to expand their collection with the 2-CD deluxe edition, one that dili­gently collects most of the B-sides and EP-only tracks from that period: I honestly have not listened to them long enough to form much of an opinion, but on the whole, they strike me as (unsurprisingly) somewhat inferior — still closer to Pablo Honey level, and not even nearly as memo­rable as the best stuff on that album. Stuff like ʽPunchdrunk Lovesick Singalongʼ goes for the same sorrowful-tender effect as ʽHigh And Dryʼ and ʽFake Plastic Treesʼ, but is not provided with an equally catchy or tear-jerking chorus. On the other hand, ʽMaquiladoraʼ fully confirms to the above­mentioned standards of guitar greatness.

3 comments:

  1. George,

    I love your reviews, and have for years...and knew quite well that we'd zoom off in different directions again once you revisited Radiohead. Different strokes, etc., and I'm not going to try to change your mind on the topic, but because I see what's coming down the pike, I would like to note one thing:

    You write that "the tragedy of The Bends is that it is a rock album," contrasting this with the band's supposed "greatest achievement" of "transcend[ing] the boundaries of a stale and uninspired musical genre." I get your point, and there's a certain area of critical consensus where it is espoused most unceasingly.

    Except, rather crucially, I've never met *anybody* outside of those deans of musical critical thought who actually thinks this way. Nobody I know regards The Bends as a "tragedy" because it's "just" a really awesome rock album. I've never heard someone say "I like The Bends, but compared to 'Like Spinning Plates,' it might as well be protoplasm." Everyone likes The Bends!

    So I dunno. I know this whole series of re-reviews is supposed to be about revisiting albums with a fresh-ish look, but the idea that "Kid A" is "real" music and this is considered to be something lesser...that's a rock dean thing. Kid A and The Bends can both exist and be good and fuck the narrative.

    That said: I love The Bends. Shock! Although I depart slightly on the B-sides from this period, which I think are glorious and could've easily shown up on the album proper. Ahh, The Tricker. Ahh, Permanent Daylight.

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    1. As I understand, "the tragedy" sentence is George looking from the eyes of other critics. Judging by the review, I would say he thinks this is their best album.

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  2. Sad to see the status of "High And Dry" as a highlight of The Bends getting revoked. It's one of the simpler songs here, but that beautiful falsetto still gets me every time.
    (Fake Plastic Trees exploits the same trick to a more epic effect and I LOVE that as well, but something about the beauty, simplicity and efficiency of High And Dry's melodies make it one of my top favorites from the band.)

    Rest of album are loaded with really great highlights from the band's careers too: Planet Telex, Just, Street Spirit and the aforementioned Fake Plastic Trees are the ones I return to most (after High And Dry).

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