Too Smart to Be Naive, Too Young to Be Jaded: ‘The Bends’ and Teen Angst

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

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.