“Where Do We Go from Here?” ‘The Bends’ of the 20th Century and Beyond

The Bends is the 20th century's identity emerging under pressure, forced to search bleakly for some form of cohesion among an increasingly artificial and commercial world.
The Bends
Parlophone / Capitol

It’s the statement of the century. It’s the first thought of the last thread of our minds as we venture and break into new territory that seems like the last possible step. It’s the time of our lives, and the time of the times, that begs us to ask not where else can we go, but rather: where do we go from here? It’s that question that forces us to ask if we’ve taken a wrong turn, if we’ve gone somewhere we never intended to go, and broken all the rules we set ourselves. How do we get out of this mess? How can we find ourselves again? Where do we go from here?

Ask any child of any era to reminisce about their childhood — what would they tell you? That the ’60s defined what a counterculture was? That the ’80s changed pop culture as we know it? That now social media dictates everything we think and do?

What do children of the ’90s say? What banner do they have to display?

Nothing at all, actually. And there’s not a damn thing wrong with that.

The paramount characteristic of the ’90s is the foreboding doom of the future. There we were, facing the end of a century home to two world wars, incessant conflicts of gender identity and enculturation, and a virtually exponential usurping of technology in our daily lives. This was also the generation influenced by billows of advertisements, now comfortable on our television screens and finding a new venue on the worldwide web. In the ’90s, we were facing uncharted territory: the end of the 20th century, and the beginning of the 21st century, where the fantasies of science fiction were waiting for us right around the corner.

The new generation of children born in the ’80s and ’90s were responsible for the phantom idea of “tomorrow”. That’s a heavy tomorrow, as it’s not just another century; it’s the end of a 20th century made up of war, accessible technology, social upheaval, and some weird thing called the internet. How did this generation react to such burden? How does a weight as monumental as the Hallmark “first day of the rest of our lives” weigh on the autonomy and troubled identities of the children of the future?

That’s The Bends. Here’s the world, coming out of an ocean of turbulent protests for Civil Rights, a wave of anti-war radicals, and a burgeoning typhoon of computer technology that sedated the dreams of science fiction. In sudden decompression from intense pressure, here we are, expected to foray into unknown territory; those bubbles ache our joints and paralyze us stiff, to the point that the blistering echoes of commercialism that erupted on our screens beckoned consumers more and more. This went on to the point that we could hardly distinguish ourselves from the mannequins in the mall.

In retrospect, one album uniquely captures this incessant pressure to forage the future: Radiohead’s The Bends, released in 1995. The Bends offers its listeners a novel performance of alternative rock, but this masks the deep thematic undercurrents that resonate through frontman Thom Yorke’s strained lyrics and the instruments that combat or support them. The album illustrates how the end of the 20th century did not mark a turning point in human history, but instead characterized the stagnation of the human spirit gasping for an identity. In other words, The Bends is the 20th century’s identity emerging under pressure, forced to search bleakly for some form of cohesion among an increasingly artificial and commercial world. While the album depicts this struggling and angst-ridden search, it indeed offers glimmers of hope — even in the forms of what initially seems like a hopelessly lost “black star”. As Yorke sings, “I want to be a part of the human race…” but even so, “where do we go from here?”

The album begins with some faint murmur, reminiscent of the sounds Jupiter would send to our radios. “Planet Telex” chimes in unexpectedly — the typical alternative guitar from Pablo Honey becomes a secondary instrument to what feels like a new ambient sensation from the band. (Knowing where the band is now in 2015, this instrumental shift doesn’t seem very surprising). What does this signal signify? What are we to make of the singular stroke of the piano keys on an echoed delay?

There’s something forceful about the guitar that takes over the song, accompanying Yorke’s imploring lines: “You can force it but it will not come / You can taste it but it will not form.” Yorke, in the very first spoken word of the album, puts us at the very center of some conflict, and we’re struggling with some force that won’t bend to our will, but it’s also something that won’t disappear when we want it to. We “can crush it but it’s always here”, and we “can crush it but it’s always near / Chasing you home.” Yorke never explicitly tells us what we’re fighting against, but it’s out of our control, even though it certainly feels like we have control. As he continues to tell us, we can “force” it, “taste” it, “crush” it, “walk” it, “but still, everything is broken”. The singular “it” is dwarfed by the engrossing “everything” that remains in pieces.

We can imagine ourselves starting off in the middle of somewhere, trying to find some sort of purpose that’s tangible, something we can touch, and taste — but in The Bends, this is pointless. The “thing” we were trying to grasp was a single shard among shattered glass. You try to pick up one piece, but when has glue ever fixed a mirror? And, in a broken mirror, will the image ever be the same? This becomes especially difficult when we’re in the unfamiliar territory of a planet we’ve never been before. And it’s from this point (that has no distinct point) that we find ourselves submerged in what The Bends is all about: finding yourself broken by the pressures around you, unsure of where to start picking up the pieces.

Before the next track plays, I always recall Yorke’s explanation of The Bends before a performance: that this song is about “knowing who your friends are”. It brings to mind the adage of keeping your friends close and your enemies closer — or, at least, having some sense of security and awareness, rejecting any doubt. When we find ourselves in a deep enough well, we need to know who we can count on to extend their hands, even when the storm is right above us. We can rely on our friends and family to help us pick up those pieces.

Our protagonist has now found himself alone — more specifically, alone (or at least, feeling alone) on an “aeroplane”. Immediately, the hero is dependent on a potentially dangerous form of travel, of which Thom Yorke always mused a wariness “of mechanised transport”. The “hero”, or protagonist, from this point of view is just a way to refer to the narrator. We can claim it’s Thom, or we can claim it’s a fictional character, and we can make further claims that it’s specifically a man or a woman — but, for our purposes, all I’m concerned with is that it’s someone.

Something is bothering our hero: he expresses a need to “wash [himself] again to hide all the dirt and pain / ‘Cause I’d be scared that there’s nothing underneath.” This fear of discovering nothing underneath illustrates a worry of a lack of tacit identity — an emotional crisis is often followed by numbness. Our hero is unsure of what really lies underneath the “dirt and pain” of his experiences. He feels that he is sinking, and is left wondering who would be left to help pull him out. He says it’s his “baby” who’s got The Bends. Even his “friends” have The Bends. Does he have it, too? Radiohead’s lyrics here are characterized by a constant numbness or dullness; among all the people our hero knows, everyone seems to be in a similar state. Most notably, there’s an implied relationship here — him and his “baby”, or lover, are suffering through this. This motif of a relationship challenged by pressure will reappear in other songs throughout the album. But, it’s important to note that this album is not about relationships; it’s about what pressure does to them.

Interestingly, in all this numbness, the narrator pines: “I wish it was the ’60s / I wish I could be happy… I wish that something would happen.” The ’60s defined a generation, gave a platform for a counterculture and handful of revolutions, a place where someone could feel he really belonged. He wishes, or has some daydream, for belonging. But still, at the end of his rope, he still cries, “the words are coming out all weird / where are you now when I need you?”

This numbness caused by emotional heartbreak and a desire for some sensible identity carries on in the next track, “High and Dry”, where the narrative voice shifts in the verse and the chorus. This dialogue between the “narrator” and the “boy” can be interpreted many ways, but I see it as an internal dialogue of the same hero still stuck in The Bends. He has now forgotten all those around him and is solely talking with himself.

How often do we find ourselves arguing with ourselves? In some random thought, you say to yourself, “You know that was a stupid thing to do…” The same phenomenon is occurring here. The hero is criticizing himself, aware that he can’t fool himself, no matter how clever he is. He’s lost something: some sense of the world beneath his feet, maybe some disappointed friend or lover, or maybe both. This heartbreak has only caused a transformation; now the boy is broken in pieces, staring at a broken mirror, and “turning into something [he] is not”. Arguing with himself, he begs for mercy again, not to be left high or dry.

“Fake Plastic Trees” is often heard as a statement against bland commercialism. The “fake Chinese rubber plant / In the fake plastic earth” describes the synthetic revolution, our plastic world replacing the natural earth until that earth itself has lost its originality and become “fake”. Soon the synthetic plastic ruins a couple trying to survive against the gravity of this, and it continually “wears” them out. This phrase is particularly significant: the use of “wears” implies that the man and woman have turned into a synthetic product that is worn out until it’s no longer useful, much like our couches sag and our plastic glasses crack. While the industry of the 21st century can reproduce anything we ever need, it’s hard to replace a corroded vitality.

This corrosion is explored further in “Bones”, where our hero is feeling the pressures of The Bends finally taking their toll. His bones start to crumble, and he’s reduced to a infantile state, “crawling on all fours”. The prospect of “Prozac painkillers” is a remedy, but the connotations of the “fake plastic world” reduce this to another case of a “quick fix” to a broken object. The hero pines of some lost grandeur; he “used to fly like Peter Pan”. The disorientation of The Bends is weighing heavier and heavier.

Radiohead’s future experiments with parentheses in Hail to the Thief started with its subtle and often forgotten use in “(Nice Dream)”. Here, the connotations of a “nice dream” bring to mind a fantasy of a passing thought. We often daydream about winning the lottery, and how nice that would be, a similar musing that occurs in this song. In between his daydreams of sunshine, gardens, and love, the narrator persistently reflects with a repetitive utterance: “nice dream”. It’s as if the prospect of tender love and belonging is just a daydream. Among this, we have a plea for help: “I call up my friend, the good angel / But she’s out with her answerphone / she says that she would love to come help but / The sea would electrocute us all”. The underwater motif appears again, along with a plea for help towards someone who isn’t there, much like the plot of “The Bends”.

In the chorus of “Just”, we finally have our turning point. Some phantom fate is seeking out, suckering or tricking those who are lost. But the narrator repeatedly sings, “You do it to yourself, you do”. It’s as if the hero is starting to admit that this personal hell — the pressure of The Bends — is perhaps not to be totally blamed on outside forces. We do these things to ourselves as much as the world does to us. Yes, we feel lost. We feel hunted by a force that “comes like a comet”, but to paraphrase the existential philosophy of Sartre, most — if not all — predicaments in life are caused by ourselves, our own wills. Similarly, the salvation also rests with the cause. The aggressive distortion in “Just” suggests a burgeoning anger and passion in this realization. It’s the first significant shift we have from victim to prophet for the hero of The Bends.

This newfound prophecy suddenly turns sour in the cynical “My Iron Lung”. Notably, there is a claim to ownership of the breathing device — perhaps a nod to the selfish retail consumerism of the late 20th century, where ownership became paramount to utility (the “I had the best product and you don’t” mentality). The most significant reference occurs in the middle of the song: “We scratch our eternal itch / Our 20th century bitch and we are grateful for our / Iron lung.” The “20th century bitch” refers to the constant pressure from the world on the young ’80s and ’90s generations to shoulder the burdens of the future 21st century. After all, it’s the beginning of another 100 years of humanity, following a century as definitive as the 20th — how much pressure could there be to not only reproduce but carry on the tumultuous and progressive centennial?

The result of this pressure, similar to the stifling of bone crushing in “Bones” and the dryness of “High and Dry”, is a numb paralysis. But, even in this life support, the conflicting pains and lack of centrality leaves the hero pining for something to latch on. This ends up being his “new song.” At the same time, however, any hope is questioned when the very same is said to be “Just like the last one / a total waste of time.” But, not all is lost, as he consoles himself and the listener: “You can be frightened… it’s okay.”

Certainly, this hope permeates the wishful thinking of the next track. There’s still a pervasive sense that a relationship is being challenged. The narrator declares, “I’ve never let you sweep me off my feet,” and later he denies this other person the opportunity to “tell me now I’m much too proud / To walk away from something when it’s dead”. If we tried to wonder what was happening to this couple, we can easily imagine the typical stresses of any relationship. But, in another structural trope used throughout The Bends, the chorus cements some declaration: “This time baby, I’ll be bulletproof.” While the title suggests a hopeless wish to be bulletproof, for the sake of another, the hero declares they will be.

The transition into “Black Star” — a chorded echo fading into the song — suggests a passage of time. If we jump one to five years ahead from the rock-bottom solemnity of the previous track, our couple has somehow lost touch. It’s suggested that our hero is traveling and living away from his partner: it’s been “58 hours since that I last slept with you”. Perhaps this is where the constant stress of touring takes its toll on the relationships that we hope to last forever. Our initial “Where do we go from here” has turned into a “what are we coming to”, suggesting that we have found something, whether it’s some kind of purpose, or simply someone to be with. However, this accomplishment has taken a turn for the worse. The only suitable blame is on a symbol of fate and foreboding: the “black star” and the “falling sky”, as well as the “satellite that beams me home”. Is this a scaled reference to “Planet Telex?”, or is the satellite beaming them from an unfamiliar place to the arms of another? Even this confusion is killing them.

Amongst this pressure and chaos, the hero has nothing left to do but “Sulk” and succumb again to some subconscious self-deprecation. While he tells himself, “Just like your dad, you’ll never change,” there is some fate approaching them, falling into the same state of disorientation that is occurring with his father. Intentionally avoiding all muddy tangents into Freud, the hero is being eaten alive by this thoughts and feelings, and just tries to admit a depressed state of denial as he would “fall asleep” and “drift away”.

But he refuses to let the credits roll. The hero refuses to accept a paralyzed death, and refuses to line up to “fade out”. In “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”, we have a metaphor for the fleeting nature of birth and death. We fade in and fade out before we can find ourselves. He’s struggling to work with the “machine”, or this mechanized society that “will not communicate”. We are always trying to find ways to connect with others and the world we live in; in the bland but pressured end of the 20th century, without a solid foundation to rest ourselves, we were left alone, without any communication or reassurance that things will get better. The casualties –“Cracked eggs, dead birds” — scream in their fight. The narrator feels a kinship to those that have passed and is starting to succumb into the same fate.

But the final lines offer some sense of security. He tells us all to “immerse [our] soul[s] in love.” Why choose to end with this line, repeated twice? Why choose to end the entire album on such a note? Is there even a purpose, or did all these songs get thrown together haphazardly?

If we consider the constant reference to love and relationships throughout the album, there is a centrality here. Despite the struggles between the couple in “Bulletproof… I Wish I Was” and “Black Star”, the hero has found someone to heal their wounds from The Bends. Even though the times and demands of adulthood test our relationships, we discover, along with the narrator, that these are the only things we truly have that keep us home.

The black star from before is no longer a metaphor for fate. The satellite is the other person in his life that beams them home.

When we’re far away from home or even lost, we often don’t think of ourselves. Our minds conjure the faces of those we love and miss. This is where our hero has found the hope he’s been looking for. Sure, the uncertainty is still there, and the pressure is still there. But do we ever shake the pressure from our shoulders? Isn’t there always something to worry about? The only constant we may find is the hand that reaches to pull us out. The sensation of holding that hand, and gripping it tightly: that’s difficult to forget.

This is where we find some glimmer of hope after emerging from that pressure. We’re still decompressing from the immense weight, and we’re still feeling the side effects of it all. But, in the end, we’re emerging. If we have something or someone to hold onto, then there’s something to look forward to.

The Bends is certainly a flawed album. It’s only Radiohead’s sophomore effort, and they would go on to produce much more sophisticated work in OK Computer and their other albums in the ’00s. As with any artwork, there are multiple ways to interpret it’s meaning, but we should at least consider The Bends as a relic of the end of the 20th century: a snapshot of what it meant to be someone on the inside looking out.

Splash image from the music video for “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”.

Brian Schmitt is an English teacher at Urbana High School in Urbana, Illinois. He is currently working on publishing his first novel, The Adventurer.