Radiohead’s “The Bends”: 20 Years Later
As the band continues work on a new album, their first since “The King of Limbs” in 2011, Radiohead marked an important anniversary this past week, the 20th anniversary of “The Bends”, the first of many masterpiece LP’s the band would be responsible for. It’s hard to believe the album is now 20 years old, as it continues to hold up very well to this day.
“The Bends” was an important album for Radiohead, as it was a major stepping stone for the band’s musical direction. In many ways, “The Bends” marks the transitional moment for Radiohead where they went from the group best known for “Creep” to the musical geniuses behind concept albums like “OK Computer” and “Kid A”. “The Bends” represents Radiohead at their most conventional in many ways, and as much as I love admire the boundary-pushing experimentation of their later years, I often prefer the raw angst of this album. “The Bends” is the album I recommend to those unaccustomed to Radiohead’s music, as it’s more accessible than the experimental, boundary-pushing albums that followed, but still demonstrates the qualities that make Radiohead so great.
“The Bends” is chock-full of stand-out individual tracks, so I thought I would share my five personal favorites, not an easy list to whittle down. Though these are my personal highlights, I highly recommend taking the time to listen to “The Bends” in its entirety.
1) “Fake Plastic Trees”- Begins as a stripped-down acoustic ballad that builds to a swelling, noisy climax. A beautifully arced song which perfectly demonstrates the simultaneous beauty and rawness of Radiohead’s music.
2) “High and Dry”- The most pop-oriented song Radiohead ever made and, likely following “Creep”, the most instantly recognizable. Singer/Songwriter Thom Yorke has expressed shame over the song’s commercial appeal in the years since, but I stand by “High and Dry” as Radiohead effectively embracing simplicity.
3) “Just”- On an album that plays heavily on the prettier side of Radiohead’s oeuvre, “Just” stands out for its balls-to-the wall grittiness. The playful, effects-heavy guitar work from Johnny Greenwood is the stand-out on this particular track.
4) “Black Star”- The melancholic undertone that permeates throughout “The Bands” is at the forefront of this later track. Like “High and Dry” this song is fairly straightforward, but both Yorke’s vocals and Greenwood’s distorted guitar carry real emotional weight and elevate the track.
5) “Sulk”- All of the aforementioned qualities that make “The Bends” a great album are present on this penultimate track. The highlight comes during the key change towards the end of the song. Yorke’s already strained vocals are forced to their breaking point and it’s a thing of raw beauty.