10th Favorite Album: The Bends, by Radiohead

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The Bends. Radiohead.
1995, Capitol. Producer: John Leckie.
Purchased, 1999.

IN A NUTSHELL: The Bends, by Radiohead, is a mighty collection of guitars and weird sounds and swooping, swerving melodies. The band writes mini-symphonies, and singer Thom Yorke delivers them with power and conviction. Multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood throws a million different things into the background, rewarding multiple listens. The band evokes many emotions within a single song.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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“Life is Suffering,” they say the Buddha said, but it’s very likely this is not true. Sure, Life IS Suffering – that is definitely true – but it’s doubtful the Buddha said these words. From a historo-linguistic point of view, he most certainly never said those three exact words, as certain as he never said, “Bro, check this out,” before speaking them. He didn’t speak English. But from a less ridiculous, more theological and philosophical perspective, it seems1 that he didn’t mean what those words together connote.

Still, I’ve always found solace in the words, despite my misapprehension of them. The fact that the basic state for humankind, perhaps for any-kind, all the way down to bacteria and viruses2, is suffering is an inspiring thought because it allows one to take pride in one’s happiness and in the simple joys, as they’re evidence that you’ve done work to overcome life’s basic state.

Of course, I’m a man in a (somewhat) advanced Western society, basking in all that my privilege affords me, so I try to stay aware of the myth that my suffering is just like everyone else’s. It isn’t. And the gap between my suffering and that of people in different situations than mine has very little to do with anything I’ve done. I’m the right collection of chemicals fortunate enough to be placed on the planet when and where I was, and then I didn’t fuck up my good fortune.

“What the heck are the blues?”

Still – I’ve had some shitty times. My blues are real to me, and my pains, well, they hurt. I’m lucky that they’re not compounded by the bullshit that society lays on those who don’t look like me, love like me, earn like me, or live like me. But this luck doesn’t do much to lessen the suffering that I, as a member of “Life,” endure. But there is something to help me endure it: music.

As a nerdy teen who listened to nerdy music, I spent hours in my room listening to records. The Blues are probably the natural state of most teen-agers, and it’s useful to find something to help them through it: books, music, comic books … For me, it was comedy – whether TV, movies, radio programs, stand up albums, funny songs – and rock music. In the 80s, when my concerns were acne and school dances and making the basketball team and trying to get out of band practice, well, a little rock music could help me work my way through it all. One meditative excursion through “La Villa Strangiato” or “Starship Trooper” or Gaucho or Van Halen II could perk a kid right up.

It also has helped me in adulthood. When my oldest kid was little, and I was moving into my mid-30s, I started to grow frustrated with almost everything about my life. Like many new parents, I was stressed out, unsure, lost in the care of others, feeling the weight of responsibility, and generally wigging out. My wife and I had recently moved across the country and we were both seriously questioning the decision. Everything about the “old life” seemed golden. Everything about the “new life” seemed horrible.

I was astounded by the deep love I felt for my kid, and this definitely helped guide me. But virtually everything else seemed to suck. My career was boring to me. I was trying to “make it3” in the stand-up comedy business, but family life seemed to be throwing up insurmountable hurdles. I fought often with my wife. And I drank too much, and even felt the pull of opioids, after a tumble down some steps gave me three broken ribs, a chest wall injury and a prescription for Percocet. The usual things that people turn to in such times – family, friends, therapists, community – weren’t really doing much for me.

But music was there for me. In particular, the Radiohead album The Bends.

I’ve probably written this before, but when I first heard Radiohead, in 1992, I thought they sucked. Their song “Creep” was all over MTV and the radio, and I couldn’t stand it. (Although Chrissie Hynde later did a version that I love.) At a party, in 1995 or ’96, a friend told me that The Bends was one of the best new albums he’d heard recently. I kept my mouth shut about how bad they sucked.

Then, in 1997, I saw the strange video for their excellent song “Paranoid Android,” and I picked up their record OK Computer. I became a fan4. I remembered my buddy’s praise for The Bends, so I went out and got it. It was just fine, but I didn’t become obsessed until I had that rough patch of life in the early 00s.

I’d listen to it regularly, always on headphones. I don’t even remember now how it became so important, or when, exactly, I started listening. But I have memories of lying down, baby asleep, house quiet, and letting the music work its magic. It soothed me, expressed feelings that I felt but didn’t understand, and kept me sane. I took to thinking of it as my “CD of Restraint,” akin to a chain that a werewolf attaches to himself while in human form to prevent his horrible, transformed lycanthropic self from running wild through the glow of a full moon.

Now don’t get me wrong – it’s not as if, without the record, I’d have gone on some killing spree, or would have awoken to find myself devouring a live goat at sunup. I don’t think I was that desperate. But it definitely helped my mental state at the time, from the opening winds of “Planet Telex.”

Phil Selway’s drums- in particular the strong bass drum – immediately grab the listener. Then Colin Greenwood’s bass enters with a loopy line, and all the sounds build to singer Thom Yorke’s entrance. His thin tenor sings lyrics that, frankly, probably resonate with anyone feeling down and out and wishing to wallow a bit. The chord pattern in the chorus, beginning at 1:20, is beautifully sad. Guitarist Jonny Greenwood adds cool guitar through the third verse, beginning at 1:55. I love the verses, and chorus, and how the band uses dynamics – a characteristic of most all Radiohead songs. When the bass re-enters about 3:40 and the song recedes with a little guitar riff outro, I find myself asking, “Was that the perfect song?”

And the band follows it up with another great song that hits you from the get-go. The title track, “The Bends.”

“The Bends” showcases Radiohead’s orchestral tendencies5 with an opening fanfare full of pomp. They scale things back so Yorke can sing – and once again, listening to the lyrics, I can see why I connected with them at the time. But despite the sad lyrics, the song is powerful and aggressive – as at 1:02, when another orchestral-sounding riff and bass set the stage for Yorke’s pre-chorus, then the guitars play simple chords as he sings. The band builds up to the chorus6 which Yorke sings with more power in each successive verse. This is another song that just sounds perfect to me – all the different pieces – and has one of my favorite guitar solos ever, beginning at 3:03, as Jonny goes back and forth between single notes and chords over top a furious band. It’s simple, but it’s wonderful.

After a couple barn-burning, aggressive songs, the band scales things back with “High and Dry” and “Fake Plastic Trees.” “High and Dry” shows the band can pull off the sad, acoustic numbers with ease – and while adding their own signature: guitar sounds, noises, and dynamic changes. It’s a lost-love song, and Yorke sings it well. The previous songs were sad but powerful – this one’s just sad.

“Fake Plastic Trees” is also sad, although the lyrics are about plastic surgery.

This is another of my favorite songs on the album. I think there are five or six favorites out of 12 great songs. It’s a showcase for singer Yorke, who sings sweetly until he opens things up, about 2:25, when he starts to really emote as the band goes nuts behind him. Then, at 3:34, he wonders if he could “be who you wanted, all the time.” It’s a song that still speaks to me, 25 years (!) after its release. (On a comment on the Official Video for this song, someone7 stated “Radiohead is the one band that can make you cry and cure your sadness at the same time.” I know what he means.)

The next song, “Bones,” returns to the guitar rock sound, albeit with a mid-tempo groove thanks to Selway and Colin Greenwood. I love when Yorke shouts “You got to feel it in your bones!” It’s a straightforward rocker that the band makes their own.

After rocking out, then slowing down, then rocking out, the boys mix things up with a song that seems to be one thing but – gloriously – can’t decide which it really is. It’s called “(Nice Dreams)” and it’s another favorite.

It’s a sweetly-swinging, 6/8 singalong song, almost like something you’d sing at camp as a kid. Swirling sounds support Yorke’s mystical lyrics. There’s great countermelody backing vocals the second time through the chorus, at 2:07. Then at about 2:24, it sort of goes a bit nuts, with Jonny squawking all kinds of squawks – or maybe it’s second guitarist Ed O’Brien. Then the song fades away – rather like a dream. A nice dream, actually. Perhaps a (nice dream).

The next song, “Just,” has a great groove, and nice doubling of the guitar and vocals. It’s one of the few songs on the record with lyrics that seem kind of angry. Jonny’s soaring guitar is really terrific, and the band again goes between soft and loud – they may be the band that does the most with dynamics outside of Pixies. In 2001, the Classical Music critic for The New Yorker magazine profiled the band and made connections between their songwriting and some of the “tricks” used by classical composers. Maybe that’s why the songs sound so good?

My Iron Lung” is another song, like “(Nice Dreams),” that has a section in the middle that comes out of nowhere, as if a different song was dropped in. This isn’t a criticism! I like it. It opens with a cool guitar riff, and a pumping, simple bass line that pushes it forward. It’s mid-tempo and peaceful, and builds in power, but nothing prepares the listener for the raucous section at 1:55. And while the lyrics say “this is our new song, just like the last one, a total waste of time,” this album means too much to me for me to agree. Even my least favorite song on the album, “Bulletproof … I Wish I Was,” is a song I like. The final song on the album, “Street Spirit (Fade Out),” is another I don’t love … but it’s still very good.

Sulk” has all the majesty and pomp of the best Radiohead songs, its four-note guitar riff chiming like symphonic violins. Yorke emotes and howls the tale of disintegrating love.

“Black Star” is another of my favorites on the album. It has a swerving melody that Yorke sings at the top of his register. Jonny plays some terrific lines behind the verses. This song also has a harmony vocal, which is kind of rare for Radiohead, but it also has a tricky time-signature change, which is more common for them. It’s a song about things falling apart, and when the lyrics “this is killing me” appear at the end, it’s easy to see why it connected with me during the rough times.

I’ve had more rough patches since those days nearly 20 years ago. And I’ve had some amazing patches, as well. Either way, music has been an important tool in helping me through the pain and the glory. I often wonder if I’d like this record as much if I hadn’t stumbled onto it at that particular time. Who knows? Life is suffering, so I try to just accept the good things when I find them.

TRACK LISTING:
“Planet Telex”
“The Bends”
“High and Dry”
“Fake Plastic Trees”
“Bones”
“(Nice Dreams)”
“Just”
“My Iron Lung”
“Bullet Proof … I Wish I Was”
“Black Star”
“Sulk”
“Street Spirit (Fade Out)”

 

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3 responses to “10th Favorite Album: The Bends, by Radiohead

  1. Let me begin by acknowledging the impossibility of objectivity: I love the band, this album in particular, and you. That said, there’s something particularly inspired about this memoir-ish meditation. I’m tempted to point to the candor and humility, but those qualities have been there throughout your countdown. Maybe it’s the specificity and vulnerability with which you pinpoint your trials. Or how you capture the odd, real comfort of a darkness we know it’s best not to inhabit too long. No matter, your take on The Bends evinces what you most value about the album.

    And, somehow, it compels me to add a bit of Melville to the mix:

    “Would to God these blessed calms would last. But the mingled, mingling threads of life are woven by warp and woof: calms crossed by storms, a storm for every calm. There is no steady unretracing progress in this life; we do not advance through fixed gradations, and at the last one pause:—through infancy’s unconscious spell, boyhood’s thoughtless faith, adolescence’ doubt (the common doom), then scepticism, then disbelief, resting at last in manhood’s pondering repose of If. But once gone through, we trace the round again; and are infants, boys, and men, and Ifs eternally.” (Moby-Dick, Ch. 114, “The Gilder”)

    Nice work, my fellow If!

  2. p.s. Gillian Welch’s cover of “Black Star” deserves mention–and a listen:

What do you think? Let me know!

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