In light of Radiohead releasing a new album this month I decided to revisit and review what may have been the most straightforward Radiohead album ‘The Bends’ – the band’s second release from 1995.
Immediately I was struck by the fact that 12 years had passed and that the landscape for Indie Rock, Alternative, Britpop (call it what you will) has changed so much since then. I saw Radiohead live first in 1993 supporting James at Brixton Academy in London. Hindsight being 20/20 should make me say “Oh I saw the potential blah blah blah” but in truth I was not overly impressed or even interested. Partially because the debut album Pablo Honey was pretty formulatic for a debut and live the band were shoegazing (they were from Oxford after all) and fairly nervous. Coupled with the fact I was there to see James (who were excellent) and wasn’t thrilled about waiting through a support act.
Fast forward 15 months or so – the moth turned into a butterfly. ‘The Bends’ was such a swirling sea change in sound, scope and ability that I was hooked. Preceded by the single ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ I recall buying the CD the day it was released and being very impressed, especially after the first album. Over a decade later and via countless listens and sharing of the album with others it stands up incredibly well to the cruelest thing music has to weather – the passing of time.
So often when we listened to a disc from the 90’s or 80’s the first thought is ‘good songs but the production ruins it’ or ‘what were they thinking’ – no such distress with this album. From the opening attack of ‘Planet Telex’ the album signals its arrival – a loud and positive step into what became a huge record for a band on their way to becoming indie darlings of ’95-’99.
Thom Yorke’s voice on the 2nd album has become the central point for the band by the time of this record and it still sounds (for me) to be at it’s pinnacle with The Bends – not matched subsequently. Track two – ‘The Bends’ has remained for me one of the strongest openings to a track ever – John Leckie’s production of the soft/hard blend that became a staple of Radiohead songs. The double tracking of electric and acoustic guitar on this track and others on the album is another prominent feature. Choppy guitar interlaced with a swirling chorus takes the song to it’s strength (and a rarity) the best part of the song is the bridge. Yorke’s semi-rap propels the song to the sing along coda of “I want to live, breath, I want to be part of the human race” (a wee bit melodramatic but at that age I felt the isolation too…sure..!).
Two singles follow – the vaguely traditional High and Dry followed by the stellar Fake Plastic Trees. Both songs have great atmosphere – I always felt High and Dry was the kid brother to ‘Fake Plastic..” as both songs are similar if vaguely faster on the former. High and Dry has some great acoustic work on top of more choppy punctuation by J Greenwood.
I’d moved to the States when this album became big and I remember
1. Everyone feeling ‘Creep’ was written for them (perhaps it was – we don’t even use the word Creep in London – yes…you wish you were special…I know)
2. The video for ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ seemed to stick in people’s memories more than the song
The second is a pity as FPT has some of Yorke’s best vocal tics – all the way down to the last bar of a wonderful song.
Back to the disc, ‘bones’ is a reverb heavy number that builds to another thrashing chorus. A great song live if memory serves me as it’s reckless chorus is allowed more room to pulse. A great riff and Yorke’s semi yodel mark this song out as a ‘shoulda been bigger’ but it’s great nonetheless. “Nice Dream” is by name and sound very much in a lullaby vein, a pretty song with a tempo that just ferries you to a calmer place. It also features some lovely cello and a bit of viola (my non classical ears even grasped that). One of the few songs that feature backing vocals that add great depth to the latter part of the song.
“Just” is maybe the strongest link to the first album in sound – and I think is the only disposable song on the album. I just (sic) think it’s one of those songs that ‘tries too hard’ which is a pet peeve of mine. Whereas the rest of the record feels like part of a bigger whole ‘Just’ is too spikey and contrived. My Iron Lung on the other hand could be seen as a harbinger for what Radiohead would become on OK Computer. Huge arrangements and intricacies make you listen intently as the song never goes quite where you expect it to…which is excellent.
The last four tracks on the album have their own environ in my opinion as what was pretty much a rock/singles album becomes a lot larger and more thematic. Beginning with Bullet Proof the album goes to a different level. One of the first Radiohead songs that plays with the ‘less is more’ theory, the very acoustic track with heavy background noise by Greenwood is as beautiful now as when I first heard it all those years ago. Black Star has an opening that fools you into expecting another loud ‘rocker’ but then segues into another gentler number which showcases Yorke’s ability to make his voice the lead instrument. A great song that still sounds fresh as a daisy. ‘Sulk’ is a song that I would have really like to have been an instrumental so you could hear the bassline more clearly. It’s got wonderful guitar/bass overlays and I think it really is a song that it somewhat drowned in the vocals. Has there even been an instrumental version? I must find out.
The album closes with ‘Street Spirit’ which then (as now) sounds like something you first heard when you were 3 years old. So ingrained is the natural chord progression that I’ve wondered for years whether the song was ‘borrowed’ from elsewhere or if it simply is just that good. Perfect film score music – so long as the film is good.
So there we have it – a near masterpiece. It was one of my favourite records of the mid nineties and pleasingly still sounds vital today. That’s a lot more than can be said for many records of this vintage. If you don’t own it…well…you should. (I’ve a copy for sale in my online shop). Oh yes..I saw them live in ’95 (and since) also – they improved!!!