The Leap: The Universe of Difference Between ‘Pablo Honey’ and ‘The Bends’

In jumping forward from the lackluster Pablo Honey, Radiohead finally started becoming the Radiohead that is idolized today.
Pablo Honey
Parlophone / Capitol

“Admired by Britcrits, who can’t tell whether they’re “pop” or “rock,” and their record company, which pushed (and shoved) this follow-up until it went gold Stateside, they try to prove “Creep” wasn’t a one-shot by pretending that it wasn’t a joke. Not that there’s anything deeply phony about Thom Yorke’s angst — it’s just a social given, a mindset that comes as naturally to a ’90s guy as the skilled guitar noises that frame it. Thus the words achieve precisely the same pitch of aesthetic necessity as the music, which is none at all.” Grade: C (Robert Christgau, Village Voice)

“Melodic, yet almost unrecognizable as pop, and no relation to the sweeping certitudes of the U2 to which it will, erroneously, be compared. And almost unbearably, brilliantly, physically tortured by the facts of being human.” (Jennifer Nine, Melody Maker, 11 March, 1995)

— Critics weighing in on the release of The Bends

The release of Radiohead’s The Bends 20 years ago marks a critical point in the Radiohead discography, without which the creative leap to OK Computer and Kid A would’ve been impossible. It stands between their debut, Pablo Honey, and their huge breakout critical and commercial album that topped every list the year it was released, OK Computer. The Bends bridges both albums, both sonically and thematically, making Radiohead as we know them now impossible without it.

The release of Pablo Honey was bolstered by the prerelease of the monster single “Creep” months earlier. Though “Creep” remains one of the great Radiohead songs, as well as one of the most recognizable songs of the ’90s, the album as a whole is the weakest in Radiohead’s entire output. That’s not to say that it’s a bad record — in fact it probably warrants some reevaluation — but it’s also the most straightforward rock album, and it doesn’t showcase the band at its creative best. In other words, “Creep” is the exception, not the rule, on Pablo Honey.

American rock critics weren’t especially impressed by The Bends. Chuck Eddy’s review in Spin asserts, “Too much nodded-out nonsense mumble, not enough concrete emotion” (Chuck Eddy, Spin, 1 May 1995). Rolling Stone’s review isn’t much better: “Radiohead’s reach may fall short with The Bends, a sonically ambitious album that offers no easy hits.” (Ted Drozdowski, Rolling Stone, March 8, 1995). Both reviews note that the band should have stuck to what it did best, namely, “More ”Creep”, please!”

Because of “Creep”’s huge success, the band was feeling a great deal of pressure to follow up their debut with an even bigger hit, and their time in the studio with producer John Leckie was marked by problems from the beginning. Leckie’s more hands-off approach left the band floundering, and when coupled with a long tour during which they were playing the songs from Pablo Honey for over a year, Radiohead were ready to experiment and move away from the sound that marked their first album. However, they were unsure how exactly to proceed in the studio.

Artist: Radiohead

Album: The Bends

Label: Parlophone/Capitol

US Release: 1995-04-04

UK Release: 1995-03-13

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/r/radiohead.bends.albumart.jpg

Once the album was completed, the label was unhappy with their choices for a single. Expectations were low. Despite a taxing recording process, it’s to the band’s credit that they still managed to retain elements of their debut while still stretching and pushing forward as much as they did. Speaking to those expectations, Thom Yorke said, “You know, the big thing for me is that we could really fall back on just doing another moribund, miserable, morbid and negative record, like lyrically,” he explains, “but I really don’t want to, at all” (Andy Richardson, NME, 9 December 1995).

It’s important to note that the leap from Pablo Honey to The Bends is bridged by the release of the My Iron Lung EP. It includes a track from both albums, an acoustic version of “Creep” and the title track, along with six other songs. Any of those songs could’ve easily fit into The Bends, yet all together it’s a strong release on its own. Songs like “Lozenge of Love” and “Punchdrunk Lovesick Singalong” are especially good examples of what was to come for their second full-length. They both have a meandering quality, as well as a moodiness that would certainly come into play in The Bends, also marking a distinct change from Pablo Honey. “My Iron Lung” is a particularly great track that emphasizes the band’s strengths terrifically; it builds beautifully and is as perfect a Radiohead rock song as any in their catalog.

The album also marks a departure in terms of Yorke’s lyrical content. On Pablo Honey, the lyrics are more obviously personal and the songs follow a more straightforward narrative for the most part. Conversely, the songs on The Bends are often cryptic, even seemingly incomprehensible at times, yet they pave the way for the band’s later output of much more oblique and often visceral lyrics. “Fake Plastic Trees” offers a perfect example: “What she bought from a rubber man / In a town full of rubber bands / to get rid of itself”. They’re instantly intriguing, but they also require real digging to glean any meaningful understanding. In “The Bends”, the lyrics are a bit clearer, if not completely narrative in form:

Just lying in the bar with my drip feed on

Talking to my girlfriend, waiting for something to happen

I wish it was the sixties, I wish I could be happy

I wish, I wish, I wish that something would happen

This shift in using more striking imagery and obtuse phrasing marks a departure from the bulk of Pablo Honey, while paving the way for songs like “Subterranean Homesick Alien” or “Karma Police” in OK Computer.

In addition to the change in songwriting style, Yorke’s singing also shifts to focus much more on his falsetto. Certainly he employed it to great effect in “Creep”, but The Bends features falsetto on almost every song. That’s not to say that the album doesn’t still pack a sonic punch. On the contrary, Jonny Greenwood’s guitars are front and center, and regardless of Yorke’s use of falsetto or not, the songs always deliver on power and resonance. “Just” uses Yorke’s falsetto sparingly and features some excellent guitar work from both Greenwood and Ed O’Brien, and Phil Selway’s muscular drumming. It’s another highlight on an album full of brilliant moments.

One way to compare the artistic leap that occurs between Pablo Honey and The Bends is through the singles released for each album. In addition to “Creep”, Pablo Honey also has “Anyone Can Play Guitar” and “Stop Whispering” as singles. “Anyone Can Play Guitar” feels almost like an anti-Radiohead song, particularly from the perspective of Kid A and the band’s subsequent releases: it’s a middle-of-the-road rock song extolling the virtues of the guitar. Similarly, “Stop Whispering” isn’t an especially memorable song and doesn’t really speak to the band they would become.

On the other hand, The Bends counts “My Iron Lung”, “High and Dry”, “Fake Plastic Trees”, “Just”, and “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” as its singles. “High and Dry” and “Fake Plastic Trees” were the bigger hits, beautifully showcasing the band’s growth. They’re the kind of moody atmospheric songs that would become a staple of the Radiohead sound, while bringing together the band’s ear for melody and musicianship, in addition to Yorke’s stunning vocals.

The Bends opens with “Planet Telex”, a song that sets the tone for the rest of the album immediately. It’s an excellent opener in that it plays with the loud/soft dynamic that made “Creep” so popular, yet it’s much more layered and sophisticated in its changes. It makes a statement that would carry through the rest of the album. Radiohead were changing things up, and it makes for an exciting listen from start to finish.

The Bends also contains some of the most beautiful songs in the Radiohead catalog. “(Nice Dream)” has a lovely dreamlike quality that showcases Yorke’s voice to gorgeous effect. The chorus is essentially the lyric “nice dream” repeated over and over again, until it reaches the bridge, where overlapping backing vocals singing “If you think that you’re strong enough / If you think you belong enough” that quickly builds to a cacophony of guitars before quietly ending.

Closing track “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” is perhaps the album’s most achingly pretty song. It opens with a single guitar, after which Yorke comes in with an ominously gorgeous melody that plays to all his strengths as both a singer and a lyricist. It’s a stunner of a song that also clearly demonstrates a kinship to OK Computer’s “Paranoid Android”, while serving as yet another example of the band’s growth.

Apart from its importance as a link between Pablo Honey and OK Computer, The Bends is undeniably an album that would influence countless other bands, most notably Coldplay, while also standing on its own as a brilliant release. It serves as an early template for later Radiohead albums, and yet it never feels undeveloped or inferior to them.

In many ways, there are songs on The Bends that feel more timeless than those on the band’s more experimental albums, making it not only crucial to the band, but also iconic to the period. Yorke’s own words from the time acknowledge how The Bends represents a real turning point for the band: “Someone recently said that we’d come back with all this energy from nowhere. And it was simply because we finally had something on tape that justified our existence. It was like, ‘Hmmm, cool. Right! Now we can start!’” (Simon Williams, NME, 18 March 1995). And start, they did.