Review #276: The Bends, Radiohead

Karla Clifton
3 min readMay 20, 2022

#276: The Bends, Radiohead

The bends is (are?) what happens when you go scuba diving and come up too fast, experiencing a rapid change of pressure on your body. Gas bubbles can enter your bloodstream and … okay, I’m too scared to read anything else. Yep, don’t wanna know. It reminds me of that movie where people travel through time and end up getting their veins all twisted or something.

The Bends is (are?) also an album by Radiohead. It’s their second record and it catches them at an exceptionally weird time in their career: the acousticky, proto-weird time, the time before they were brave enough to go full OK Computer (#42). I love these kinds of records even when the music isn’t that good, because I love connecting the dots in the careers of famous bands. But in this case, it might be my favorite Radiohead album yet.

The RS blurb says that Radiohead isn’t “yet” shying away from guitar anthems, which is code for: It’s two short years until Thom Yorke transforms into a weird robot. But here they are, full-on embracing stadium guitars. I’m so used to Radiohead’s beep-boop music that I was startled by this, the fact that there were guitars on every single song. “The Bends,” a song about (yes) pressure ruining your life, is a meaty guitar ballad, and the guitars on “Just” are so radio friendly I almost fainted.

Still, there’s some inklings of the future robot king. “Planet Telex”’s opening sounds like a cold wind blowing through your hard drive, before Yorke jumps in with his dying-songbird vocals. The breakdown at the end of “My Iron Lung” unwinds so much, it wouldn’t be out of place on Kid A (#20). And the whole record is so restrained, I have to remind myself that at this point in time, Radiohead was a big time rock band. Like R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People, #96, which came out three years earlier, the fact that they were willing to go so soft is precisely what makes it badass.

Radiohead’s ballads, too, are exquisite, especially “High and Dry.” I’ve been ripping on Yorke’s voice (It’s so easy to do! Even RS calls him an “anguished choirboy”) but in this case it fits prettily against this unaltered acoustic guitar. The way he soars on High proves that his vocal chops are there, even though he chooses to use them in a way that baffles me. The other ballad is “Fake Plastic Trees,” which is basically the same song but was somehow a bigger hit. I prefer the former, but of course they’re both beautiful.

For the most part their restraint works for me, but I did find myself falling asleep at times. “Bullet Proof … I Wish I Was” was verrrrry slow, and I think I like “Black Star,” but Yorke’s whisper ghost voice is out in full effect. “Sulk” is just dangerously moody. Who wants to listen to a song about sulking? Radiohead fans, I guess.

But mostly I was pleasantly surprised. This isn’t Radiohead’s last album of the Nineties, but it is the last one that SOUNDS like the Nineties. Listen to “Bones,” which sounds like R.E.M., Nirvana, and U2 all conceived a baby together (while listening to the Smiths). And “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” is your standard, haunted Nineties album closer fare, a simple fingerpicked tune where Thom Yorke very cleverly says goodbye. I’m being snarky but I love it.

It’s been said that 1975 was one of the best years in music (maybe by some writers atThe Riff during a discussion very recently!) but I will HUMBLY submit that 1994–1995 were two pretty great years as well. Then again, maybe you’re not supposed to measure those kinds of things after all.

Oh well. I ❤ the Nineties.

Least Favorite: “(Nice Dream)” because A) Why the parentheses? and B) When Thom Yorke repeated Nice dream 10,000 times, I lost my ability to think.

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