Music

Too Smart to Be Naïve, Too Young to Be Jaded: 'The Bends' and Teen Angst

Amulya Tadimety

Even teenagers two decades removed from The Bends' original release can still find deep emotional connections to its depiction of isolation and dissatisfaction.


Radiohead

The Bends

US Release: 1995-04-04
UK Release: 1995-03-13
Label: Parlophone / Capitol
Amazon
iTunes

It’s the teenage kicks of the Clueless soundtrack that come to mind when The Bends is queued up: the classic '90s image of overly dramatic kids preoccupied by their own antics. Or perhaps it’s a first love who could have put “High and Dry” on a mixtape that you listened to without fail every day; maybe you don’t remember the lyrics now, but the riffs still buzz around in your head. It could also resurrect memories of your first ever drink at a party where they were playing “Just”, losing your innocence all at once with just one sip -- but in the end not even liking it that much. It could have been your Walkman, or cassette tapes, or even vinyl if that’s what you were into.

No matter how old you were when you first listened to The Bends, and no matter which decade it was when you were a teenager, the album could have been written about your own youth. Those conflicting yet assonant guitar parts, Thom Yorke’s wretched voice, and above all else his lyrics about struggling to find himself never fail to provoke a rush of nostalgia. The record is undoubtedly evocative, not to mention relatable, and that is why it’s such a fast friend for young people who are also struggling to find themselves.

The Bends always feels like it should soundtrack periods of transition, maybe because the record itself was a highly important transformation for the band. The album is the leap between the muddled “I’m better off dead” sentiment of Pablo Honey and the resigned cynicism of OK Computer, the space between “mediocre one-hit wonder” and “subversive, alternative genius.” The Bends, in every literal and lyrical sense, is a perfect representation of the transition between adolescence and adulthood.

Dawning maturity, longing, curiosity, and confusion all come up in the record, which saw Radiohead refine and experiment with their sound and in Yorke’s shrewd wordplay. In writing deeply personal lyrics about messy emotions, he unknowingly validated the confusion of thousands of similar young people. What makes The Bends so special and formative for those in their teens is the overall effect of compassionate understanding. And for those whose salad days are long gone, the lyrics’ balance of utter hopelessness and dumb hope do an eerie job of bringing back the past in all its glory, nostalgia, and regret.

“Where do we go from here? The words are coming out all weird…”

Feeling lost is something that Yorke writes a lot about on The Bends. This sense of desperation is undoubtedly inherent in all of us. The themes of not knowing where to go, not wanting to learn the nuances of the world, pessimism, and fear are commonly identified with teenage angst and growing up. That is the sense that is generally associated with The Bends-era Radiohead being “relatable” to youth: sheer disorientated despair.

Admittedly, “Everything is broken / Everyone is broken / Why can’t you forget?” is an unconventional turn of phrase with which to kick off an album. Here “Planet Telex” sets the tone for the rest of the record, with Yorke’s lyrics conveying the kind of hopelessness that those who are grappling with what’s ahead know all too well. Take the second verse of the title track: “Who are my real friends… Am I really sinking this low?” Yorke delivers these lines with genuine curiosity, as though he honestly cannot comprehend his actions. It’s one of the many moments on the record that warrants wide-eyed nods and exclamations of agreement: Yes, I understand you, Thom, I get that. I don’t believe myself sometimes, either.

That feeling of connection, deeply personal yet universal to its listeners, is Yorke’s true artistry on The Bends. Confessions like, “I need to wash myself again, to hide all the dirt and pain / ’Cause I’d be scared that there’s nothing underneath” are intimate and spine-chilling, and without a doubt easy to empathize with. It’s difficult to imagine those who have never felt that vulnerable, that defined by their pain; to imagine someone who would not be taken aback by how beautifully written those words are. Yorke’s most soul-baring lyrics may seem the most risky, but for that reason, they're the most relatable of them all.

“And I can’t help the feeling I could blow through the ceiling, if I just turn and run.”

The Bends is, indeed, full of despair, but there is also much genuine, young hope and desire harnessed in the record. This is a uniquely teenage frame of mind: too smart to be naïve, too young to be jaded. The conspicuous rays of youthful thinking in Yorke’s lyrics shine through like beams of light through a stained-glass window.

Above all, there is an overarching sense of desire: “I wish, I wish, I wish that something would happen." Yorke’s narrator is almost beyond the point of boredom and prone to mood swings, always blaming outside forces for his downfalls. “I try to behave”, he claims, “but it eats me alive”. Aside from the fact that the angst in that line alone is enough to fuel a thousand goth teens for a month, it contains the surprisingly understandable sentiment that some things are just out of the hands of humans. That’s what the track “Black Star” deals with: in its chorus, Yorke urges us all to “blame it on the black star, blame it on the falling sky, blame it on the satellite that beams me home”, because we certainly shouldn’t blame it on him. This lively perspective manages to lend a fresh understanding to the idea of inexplicable forces, and the song’s killer chorus is an ironically empowering response to adversity that is out of one’s hands. The fact that Yorke’s lyrics are not weary and wise as of yet on The Bends, but rather youthful and clever, makes the record even more appealing to younger demographics.

“We are losing it, can’t you tell?”

One of the most difficult themes to analyze in The Bends’ lyrics is Yorke’s subtle allusion to mental illness, which, upon release, inspired sympathy at best and at worst inspired Melody Maker to suggest a suicide watch. Yorke deals with this topic honestly, which renders parts of the album emotionally draining. Yet, again, Yorke’s openness allows for the audience to connect his pain to their own.

Perhaps the most blatant reference to mental illness is “Pieces missing everywhere / Prozac painkillers” ("Bones"). Yorke’s candid vulnerability has been deeply formative for impressionable fans, especially in lines like “Every day, every hour / I wish that I was bulletproof”. Even when he is addressing an assumed lover, saying, “I know all the things around your head / And what they do to you,” it can often feel like he is speaking directly to his audience, validating their own emotions. Yorke’s sincerity about complicated feelings, as well as being motivational, can also evoke for listeners particularly painful experiences of the past.

“You’re turning into something you are not.”

While the lyrics of Pablo Honey are individualistic and OK Computer comments on society at large, The Bends functions as the perfect transition between the two. Yorke’s narrator connects his own life to the society around him, and sees himself changing alongside it. This realization provokes quite a bit of fear.

Growing up is a terrifying concept, a terrifying reality for Yorke’s narrator. “(Nice Dream)”'s chant of “If you think that you’re strong enough / If you think you belong enough” says it all: one needs strength and a desire to conform in order to be a successful adult. This is such a relatable sentiment for young people just beginning to navigate the “real world” that it never stops feeling like the truth.

Yorke even shares the Holden Caulfield-esque hero complex of wanting to save the innocent from growing up, singing, “And I used to fly like Peter Pan / And all the kids flew when I touched their hands”. However, the inevitability of age is not something Yorke denies; rather, he just something that he wishes were not the case.

“Immerse your soul in love.”

The final refrain of the album, which Yorke sings with tremulous beauty, serves as a single piece of advice after a full record of lyrics about personal experiences, pain, and fear. Why would Radiohead choose to end their game-changing, soon-to-be life-changing album that way, when none of the other lyrics had been that affectionate?

Perhaps they were aware that it would change lives. Perhaps Yorke imagined the listeners who related to each and every one of his tragic sentiments throughout the album and dropped them a single piece of heartening advice: Forget about your pessimism; forget about your apathy; forget about your fear. Life is short. Immerse your soul in love.

But we may never really know. All you know is that the next time you’re at a stilted get-together and you hear the opening riff of “My Iron Lung”, your heart will swell with a deep nostalgia. The next time you happen to catch the lyrics to “Bullet Proof…I Wish I Was”, you will think about the last time you felt as vulnerable as Yorke. When you next hear “Street Spirit (Fade Out),” you will hum along with the final minute and think of how different your past would have been if only you had taken that advice to heart earlier: Immerse your soul in love. Immerse your soul in love. Immerse your soul in love.

Splash image: still from the "Street Spirit (Fade Out)" music video.

Amulya Tadimety is a music blogger who writes and raves at Between the Earphones.

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less
10

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image