Review Summary: An underrated and overshadowed classic.
Radiohead is a constantly evolving band. In a 20-year musical career, they've done grunge with "Pablo Honey", electronica with "Kid A" and "Amnesiac" and even let people have their album for free on "In Rainbows". But there was a very short period where they were a straight-up rock band that created some of the most infectious rock tunes that you couldn't help but tap your foot to. This period was an album known as "The Bends". By 1995, grunge had all but died. Radiohead had created Pablo Honey two years earlier, and although "Creep" was a moderate success, the album itself was subpar and they were merely riding the grunge bandwagon. Most popular '90s alt bands decided to just disappear: Alice in Chains released one more album before fading away, the Pixies disbanded in '93 before their music could take off, and Soundgarden had all but vanished by 1997. But Radiohead was not down for the count: they changed their style to something that wasn't just a short-lived trend, but something everyone could love and appreciate. The Bends is a perfect example of this.
I don't think I've ever seen a freshman-to-sophomore album improvement as great as this. From the odd sound effects that open "Planet Telex" the listener can immediately tell that this album will 1). be different than anything they've heard and 2). be completely and utterly kick-ass. Some of Radiohead's most iconic songs can be found on this album: the spacey, intriguing "Planet Telex", an incredible power ballad titled "Fake Plastic Trees" and the schizophrenic, constantly changing "My Iron Lung". Yorke's lyrics really began to improve here, and his voice is as ethereal and oddly creepy as ever. When I saw the band back in 2002 on the Amnesiac tour, my first thought was that his stage personality was weird. But the more I listened to what he was saying, all the stuff that was wrong with society and the new cryptic themes that had evolved into his lyrical content, the more I realized that life is simply a weird thing, and we need certain people to go with that.
When Radiohead isn't luring you in with it's odd loops and acoustic guitar noodling, be prepared for some straight-up rocking on tracks like "The Bends", "Just" and "Black Star". The bridge of the title track is really cool, with some electronic effects backing Phil Selway behind the kit (this is probably his shining moment if you are a drummer) as Yorke almost raps over the intriguing soundscape. However, some of their most amazing tracks are songs that the band members hate. The amazing "High and Dry" was almost left off the album before the other band members persuaded Yorke into including it. While there are 1 or 2 weak songs on the album (which is bound to happen when there are 12), I can't imagine thinking that "High and Dry" was one of them. Unfortunately that means they won't be playing it when I see them on June 10th but hopefully they'll play some old classics.
The Greenwood brothers are some amazing musicians. Colin's bass is beautiful in the most terrifying way possible, adding some serious atmosphere to the more intelligent, almost scary songs (Planet Telex, Nice Dream, Bullet Proof, Street Spirit). While Jonny mostly sticks to an acoustic guitar for the album, when he picks up the electric *** goes down. The chorus of "Just" or the breakdown of "My Iron Lung" are 2 of my favorite electric moments from The Bends. They are, for lack of a better word, "electrifying". Ed O'Brien is probably the most forgotten member of the band, and his contributions are difficult to detect, but once you do they stick in your mind like nothing else. And then there's Phil and Thom. Dear Lord I love the drums on this record. The drum riff of "Planet Telex" is one of my favorites by Phil, I just love the way it compliments the effects in the background as well as falling between the sweet whammy action of Jonny's guitar and Colin's keyboards. When the album gets quiet, it's surprisingly better than the louder songs, while with most albums this is usually the opposite. Songs like "Bullet Proof" or "Fake Plastic Trees" or "Nice Dream" are in my opinion the highlights of the album since Thom's voice has always been the key to the band and what makes the difference between a group of wannabes and an atmospheric alt-electronic band. The way they balance this side of themselves with the side you hear on "Black Star" or the title track amazes me to this day.
Thom's lyrics had improved rapidly on this record. "Street Spirit" is one of my favorite Radiohead songs, which shouldn't surprise some fans but it's mainly a favorite because it proves how much the lyrics had risen in quality since Pablo Honey. The lyrics really change with the music, being light and easy to digest on the slow songs and really atmospheric and challenging during the heavier sections of tracks. The lyrics got more in-depth and cryptic along with the music.
But there are still some mediocre tracks on the album: namely, "Bones". Or as I like to call it, "Creep Part 2". The falsetto during the chorus is all that saves it, and in all honesty it's not even that great of a falsetto. The song is mainly Radiohead trying to hold on to their rock roots when they already executed them better on the amazing title track. "Sulk" could also have been executed better, since it kind of becomes predictable and generic after about, oh 30-45 seconds.
The electronic influences start to show themselves
Thom's lyrics improved 150%
Phil Selway is a monster
The ballads are actually worth listening to
Some of the heavy sections become a chore to listen to after a while
Overshadowed by a certain album and doesn't get its respect
Standout tracks (asterisk signifies best song):
Fake Plastic Trees*
My Iron Lung