Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Top Ten Albums, #9 - The Bends, by Radiohead

Year released: 1995


Planet Telex - The Bends - High & Dry - Fake Plastic Trees - Bones - [Nice Dream] - Just - My Iron Lung - Bullet Proof...I Wish I Was - Black Star - Sulk - Street Spirit [Fade Out]

Once upon a time, before they were the saviors of modern rock or their generation's Beatles or whatever other superlative has been placed upon them, before too many viewings of 2001: A Space Odyssey made them all arty, Radiohead was just five guys from Oxford, England with a lot of guitars and a love of noise.

I've always had a fondness for their 1993 debut hit "Creep" because it was the last video I saw on US MTV before leaving for a year in Korea. Since that journey was really my first step into true adulthood, I'll probably always remember that day with more clarity than a lot of surrounding others. And "Creep" is a good song, too - there's that pretty, lilting, arpeggiated intro, and that repeated stuttering power chord that feels just like a creepy geek smashing his fist into a door or wall in frustrated rage over the girl he can't have.

The Bends, their second album, has little aside from some weird squiggly drawings and off-kilter typesetting in the CD booklet and a few guitar effects here and there to suggest the sharp left turns and outright artistic leaps that Radiohead's music would take in still-to-come sets like OK Computer, Kid A, and especially Amnesiac, but it's also their most cohesive and approachable record, with the most consistently high-quality set of songs from start to finish - all killer, no filler. So maybe nothing on The Bends is quite as jaw-dropping as the one-two opening assault of OK Computer's "Airbag" and "Paranoid Android," but The Bends also doesn't wander nearly as much as Computer does.

The chill electronic wind that opens "Planet Telex" recalls Pink Floyd's transition from "Wish You Were Here" into the last half of "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" on Wish You Were Here, and I think Radiohead might've once been tagged as a Pink Floyd heir or successor because of their spacey side, but Radiohead has also always been noiser, more opaque, and less bluesy than Floyd.

While there are mopey, blackish post-Grunge titles like "Sulk" and "My Iron Lung" on The Bends, Radiohead rip into the album with pretty much straight up rock gusto - the title track is a big ole wall-of-guitars anthem that even sports a lead, and Thom Yorke actually sounds kind of amused by it all -- the burden of being a rock star doesn't seem to have hit him yet. The angst doesn't really take hold until the 3rd and 4th tracks, "High and Dry" and "Fake Plastic Trees," which are also two of the best songs on the album - particularly "Trees," which lopes along all hushed and downtrodden until Yorke's anguish and frustration boil over right around the 2:40 mark and the guitars climb to a swarming wall of hornets. It's one of the best moments on any rock album for the past twenty years.

The most rocking spot of The Bends is the jangling, ringing 3:09 of "Bones" in which Colin Greenwood 's bass assumes an unusually prominent role and Yorke makes like Michael Stipe; when he sneers "I used to fly like Peter Pan," it's not in the least bit silly.

"Street Spirit [Fade Out]" brings The Bends to a hushed, funereal close, appropriate after the gorgeous noise overload of the previous eleven songs. As Yorke moans about "rows of houses / all bearing down on me," the music swells and crests before finally just rolling to a stop, like a car running out of gas. It's a beautiful climax to an album full of beautiful moments, a fitting capstone to Radiohead's suite of carefully orchestrated abandon.

While OK Computer and Kid A may have been the albums that brought Radiohead to mass awareness, it's really The Bends that first showed they could be more--much more--than a one-hit wonder. For Radiohead conoisseurs, it's far from a throwaway record, even though it may seem a bit out of place against the bulk of their later output, because so much of what continued to evolve (and continues to evolve still) started here. The Bends, moreso than their debut, Pablo Honey, was the definitive opening statement of a band with places to go and the drive and talent to get there.
For the rest of us, it's worth celebrating on its own, a gleaming-dark jewel of guitar rock perfection. It's the kind of album that energizes you, that feels like a new discovery almost every time.

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