Wednesday, June 15, 2011

CD Review: "The Bends" by Radiohead

“The Bends”
4 of 5 stars

Initially, I missed the boat on Radiohead. It wasn’t until there was so much buzz and critical acclaim for “OK Computer” that I decided to give them a listen.

My life has been infinitely better since. Years ago some friends and I had a lively discussion about the best bands of all time. It’s a topic that is always fun to get responses to, and I’ll revisit soon because it is so interesting to get people’s takes on this. But suffice to say, for me, after The Beatles, Radiohead might be the next biggest thing ever.

I was totally blown away by OK Computer, so it wasn’t long after that I got their second album, “The Bends.” At the time, some people I knew thought that this CD might actually be the band’s best release.

I dabbled with that thought at times, also. Like OK Computer, The Bends holds up. When the album was released in March 1995, although the swagger, skill and confidence the band had oozes from every note, few could have predicted that this band would become one of the most important acts going. Radiohead would not only follow up The Bends with an epic, but it would take huge, brave chances, stay grounded while becoming an international sensation, and even pioneer CD distribution methods (with the online release in 2007 of “In Rainbows”). Like other truly great artists, the band followed its muse down improbable paths, trusting that its fans would either get it, or being comfortable enough in their own skins to let them piss off if they didn’t want to go along for the ride.

The greatest acts aren’t afraid of changing and growing. They listen to the voices inside and trust their instincts. It doesn’t always work, but it’s always more interesting. Think of the musical artists who have deviated from their early successes: The Beatles. Bob Dylan. Neil Young. My Morning Jacket, PJ Harvey, for example. Lots of people hated when they went in new directions. Yet they knew they had to stretch.

I love U2, but they haven’t strayed far from being “U2” in 15 years. “Pop” was the last fresh idea they had. It’s sad, and doesn’t diminish their great catalogue. But they’ve stagnated. Same for the Rolling Stones. They haven’t released an essential work in almost 30 years.

People like familiarity. It’s comfortable. And part of what has kept “The Bends” among fan favorites is that it harkens back to the signature sound of the band while also being one of their few albums to adhere to more-or-less predictable tunesmithing. That sounds like a veiled shot but isn’t meant to be. On OK Computer and certainly “Kid A” and “Amnesiac,” Radiohead went on a trip to the edge of their collective minds. Most of it worked, some of it didn’t, and almost all of it sounded so different to “Bends”-centric fans that a line was drawn in the sand. A lot of people love “The Bends” because it represents the talent of the band without the weirdness of some of what followed. Just like a lot of people prefer the Beatles’ “She Loves You” kind of music over the things they did from Sgt Pepper forward.

These are clean stylistic breaks, but so sharp and distinct that it could seem as if they aren’t from the same parents. “Run For Your Life” and “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” sound very, very different, but were separated by less than three years.

The Bends drifts to an open with “Planet Telex” and immediately states the case: “Everything is broken. Everyone is broken. Why can’t you forget?” The music on the CD lifts your spirits. The words bring you back to earth. Just about every lyric speaks to heartbreak and alienation. These are themes that the band didn’t just hint at with its first hit, “Creep,” from “Pablo Honey,” remember? “I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo, what the hell am I doing here, I don’t belong here.”

A sample of lyrics from the rest of the tracks on The Bends:
* The Bends: “Where do we go from here? The words are coming out all weird, where are you now when I need you?”
* High and Dry: “They’re the ones who’ll hate you when you think you’ve got it all sussed out.”
* Fake Plastic Trees: “She lives with a broken man, a cracked polystyrene man who just crumbles and burns.”
You get the idea. More of the same can be found throughout the album. Even the places that seem might match lyrical and musical happiness reveal pain, like in “(nice dream)” where the simple title refutes every potential positive. Thom Yorke throws this little disclaimer in so coolly that you have to stop and think about how brilliant the put-down is. Remember “Getting Better” from Sgt. Pepper: “I have to admit it’s getting better” gors the line, immediately followed subtly by “Can’t get no worse.”

The album is a bitter pill. It’s so beautiful to listen to, but so sad to hear.

I always thought the third song, “High and Dry,” was about Evel Knievel. Maybe it is. Which would be weird for a non-American to write about a quintessentially odd American daredevil from the 70s.

Track four, “Fake Plastic Trees” is another heartbreaker. I love this band because to me they see beyond the shine and polish of American life and see the sorrow and phoniness that we’ve come to embrace so lovingly. This song seems to be a lament about a plastic surgeon and how no amount of “augmentation” or cosmetic cutting can cover up the emptiness so many of us carry around. That this was probably the biggest hit on the album probably makes the band laugh, and then wonder if the U.S. audience really gets what’s going on. For mixed messages, it’s like Nirvana’s “In Bloom.”

“Bones” to me is one of the CD’s weaker tracks. If you had to pare the CD, this would probably be the first to go.

Up next is “(nice dream).” It’s got a lot sunnier sound than Radiohead normally makes. It’s so cool that it sounds as if the singer might be sedated. He’s hoping things calm down, life settles… if it takes a heavier dosage, that’s cool. Just make it nice. Nice dream.

“Just” is legendary for the amazing video that the band recorded for the song. Check it out, and tell me what you think the guy says. The song rocks. A simplistic summation, but this is also one of the band’s most direct rockers. Sometimes it’s the message, and sometimes it’s the intensity of the message. The latter half of the song, the band really airs it out. My recommendation: Turn this one up to 11. I had to play this song twice in a row, and was tempted to go for a third round.

But “My Iron Lung” wouldn’t let me. This is a song that has grown over time. I think the band is speaking to the normal disillusionment of youth but there’s something darker here… people use whatever they can to get through the daily shit. If you’re sick, you might need an iron lung. You might think you need a ciggy, or a blunt, or a drink, or even music. At the end of the day, though, these things might artificially keep you going, but really, you’re on your own. Good luck.

So after eight songs of misery and hopelessness, it’s time for… pure agony. “bullet proof.. I wish I was” sounds to me like a last will and testament from a rejected lover. The song doesn’t take much analysis, really. Listen to it, and if you don’t feel the loss, chances are good you’re already dead.

“Black Star” almost sounds like a conventional love song. However, a closer look shows that it’s a love song about a lost love. The couple is no more, but the singer still thinks about the lost love. And, apparently, the breakup was recent. As in, days ago.

At one time, I looked at “Sulk” as maybe one of the album’s lesser efforts. I have grown wiser. It’s a simple song, but powerful. Plus most people probably don’t even consider the meaning of the following lyric: “You look so pretty when you’re on your knees, disinfected, eager to please.”

Can we be at the last track already? Under duress, if I had to, “Street Spirit (fade out)” might be the other song I’d slice from my iTunes library. It’s a pretty song, but a little slight. Maybe it’s just that after having been beaten and bitten for 11 songs, we’ve tired of the fight. So we can let this one slip from our grasp.

“The Bends” is a stunning piece of work, all the more remarkable to me in the leap made in quality from Radiohead’s first release to this. Looking back on it now, some 16 years later and against an impressive body of CDs, it seems obvious this band would become legendary. At the time, no one knew what they had. The album peaked at 88 in the Billboard charts. Crazy.

One last note: In 2009 the band reissued The Bends in a collector’s edition with a second disc that includes the phenomenal song “Talk Show Host.” Fans know of this one, but if you’re looking to get a little deeper into the band’s back catalogue, don’t miss it.

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