On Experiencing ‘The Bends’ As a First-Time Listener

With The Bends having such strong cultural and critical preconceptions behind it, hearing the album from the perspective of a new lister can help cut through the pre-ordained narrative.
The Bends
Parlophone / Capitol

Years ago, when “Creep” entered my consciousness, I made the hardline choice to write Radiohead off. I had done this before, in third grade, when I decided that the Beatles were unfathomably overhyped. To this day, I don’t fully understand our societal commitment to them. When the importance of a work or artist is preordained, when the only option is to revere a band or album as monolithic, the cultural landscape both past and present is ignored. I tend to appreciate the influence of these artists much more than their own work: Elliott Smith over John Lennon, A.C. Newman over George Harrison, and alt-J over Radiohead.

To test the validity of that purposeful ignorance, I am sitting in front of my computer with The Bends queued on Spotify. This will be the first time I ever hear this album.

Before embarking, I poke around the Internet to learn more about the record’s background. This is what I synthesize: lead singer of an unexpectedly hyper-successful alt-alt rock band, frustrated with being defined by the cash cow that is his outsider’s anthem, writes an album that explores the shackles of fame while shamelessly embracing its benefits. Of course, Radiohead would permanently tatter the fringes of mainstream rock to both critical and commercial acclaim a mere two years later, making the mythology behind The Bends a little ridiculous.

The inaugural listen does not begin well. I take a break halfway through “My Iron Lung”. As a first time listener, if you don’t implicitly care about this band or revere their story, there’s no need to buy into Yorke’s martyr complex. The final word about the insurmountable pressures of rising stardom had already been sent to print by the time The Bends was released in 1995. The 27 Club had just claimed Kurt Cobain; Yorke was 26. It’s not hard to imagine him feeling pressure or even symbolism in this. The weakest moments of the album, however, come from his mishandling of this source material. Even when the lyrics are abstract, the level of inaccessible self-reference is maddening.

Glancing at the playlist ahead, I see “Bullet Proof…I Wish I Was” and feel vindicated, but as the chorus eases in, something changes. Here, Yorke trades venom for vulnerability, letting new colors into his voice to present the real heart of The Bends: a young man struggling to simultaneously maintain and expand his sense of identity. By exploring the larger human experience of self-discovery, Yorke’s lamentations become more universal. Here, the album takes off. “Black Star” captures the grasping at straws between a depressed Yorke and his even more depressed partner. “Sulk”, a meditation on the Hungerford massacre, features some of the album’s most driven moments. “Street Sprit (Fade Out)” throws a powerful period at the end of the album, where Yorke hopes that what’s been choking him will “Fade out again” if he can “immerse [his] soul in love”. He might still be talking about his problems, but he finally gives the listener a chance to chime in with theirs.

When the “Collector’s Edition” bonus material begins, I take a second to look at the macro structure that The Bends fits into. The album is a transition, perfectly cryopreserved at the exact moment when a band, who would become one of the world’s biggest, was at the precipice of either giving up or selling out. In any other hands, that moment might have yielded a much easier album to enjoy, but it wouldn’t have yielded the career that followed. On a larger level, Radiohead refused to slide into eventual irrelevance, refused to let their breakthrough do the talking. Instead, Yorke grappled with himself publicly to released a tense and, at times, unpleasurable album so that his band could keep creating with integrity. Without The Bends, there’d be no OK Computer. No Kid A. This would be an essay about (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?

What makes a work of the past worthy of being carried into the future? Is it the retention of its cathartic qualities for generations of first time listeners? Its inspirational inimitability? When weighed against these qualities, The Bends is not a great album. The bulk of its 48:37 runtime offers subtractive satisfaction; it’s at its most engaging when Yorke pulls back the heavy-handed layers that weigh down the first two thirds of the album. Also, the sonic influence The Bends had was shockingly short-lived; the band quickly flipped to the other side of the spectrum with 1997’s OK Computer, which became their legacy’s touchstone and point of emulation. But the simple fact that there are post-Bends albums to discuss is the paradoxical importance of The Bends. While it is not a great standalone album, it’s important simply because 1995 Radiohead couldn’t become present-day Radiohead without it. And for all my unwillingness to proliferate their legacy, we do need present-day Radiohead — or, at least, the Radiohead that brought electronics to the forefront of modern rock music, that changed the industry indelibly through popularizing the pay-what-you-can model. These contributions alone warrant continuing the discussion of The Bends 20 years on.

After setting down my first draft, I got into an “all time favorite” conversation with a teacher of mine. He had recently picked up something he had never heard before on the recommendation of a friend who had called it their go-to. The music was along the lines of Thin Lizzy, something just ridiculous enough that it seemed crazy to qualify it as objectively important. When I asked him what his top record was, he had a quick reply: The Bends. He didn’t have to think about it. It was answered as simply yet meaningfully, as if I had asked for the name of his first girlfriend. I realized he was probably in high school when he first heard it. This made me wonder if, more often than not, the only true weight of an album lies in when and how it comes into your life.

The critical eye tends to strip art of its actual purpose. In his book Still Life With Oysters and Lemon: On Objects and Intimacy, Mark Doty explains that the drive behind creation, the act of pushing life through our filter into some form of art, is that “when we describe the world we come closer to saying what we are”. Doty argues that the best art allows “[…] everything here [to be] transformed into feeling.” The artist’s gift is being able to process their own reality and make the emotional core of their human experience accessible so that by synthesizing the artist’s pursuit of truth, the audience is given the unique opportunity to reflect on themselves. This is the dual power of expression and the basic contract that both “good” art and audience honor. It is the reason why certain albums seem to find you at just the right moment. For truly cosmic reasons, two lives align so that the product of an artist’s exploration gives another person the right framing to examine their own life. This event simultaneously relies on and validates adherence to the truth that all of our tastes are subjective, all in the control of the chaos of life.

Sometimes, you just aren’t in the right place at the right time. You can try to force it, but it will not come.

Splash image from the music video to “Fake Plastic Trees”.