All Things Reconsidered: Radiohead’s ‘The Bends’ (20th Anniversary)

The Bends is 12 songs, perfectly arranged, each running three to five minutes. Together they form the blueprint on which so many rock bands owe their entire careers, particularly those in the alternative rock fold.

If there’s one thing that can be said about Radiohead 20 years after The Bends, it’s this: they certainly haven’t left us “High and Dry”.

During the 20 years that followed the 1995 release of the Oxfordshire group’s sophomore album, Radiohead didn’t just become a highly acclaimed and popular band. Both of those descriptions are accurate, but they’re also huge understatements for a band of this stature. With LPs like 1997’s OK Computer and particularly 2000’s Kid A, Radiohead became icons, rock gods to whom a sea of groups would aspire to. Kid A is often called the definitive record of the ’00s; OK Computer regularly dukes it out with works like My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless for the same title in the ’90s.

This achievement becomes all the more impressive once one places The Bends in its cultural context. At the time, it was hardly revered as a masterpiece; both critics and popular audiences still had the Pablo Honey staple “Creep” ringing in their ears, and as such many viewed The Bends as an attempt to hurdle the expectations set by that single. Many panned the record when it came out, although over time critics have come to appreciate the music, enough that it has landed on lists like Rolling Stone‘s 500 Best Albums of All-Time.

However, as fine an encapsulation of the ’90s alternative rock sound as The Bends is, for many people it’s hard to put it on too high a pedestal given the significant achievements of LPs like OK Computer. As the argument so often goes, the former album is an important stepping stone to bigger things that on its own does not represent the true sophistication of Radiohead. While that may or may not be true, it’s certainly irresponsible to give The Bends such short service, even though the records the band would make after it are no doubt considerable feats. This 1995 gem, while representative of Radiohead in a more nascent stage, is still chock full of the things we have come to love about this British quintet: clever guitar riffs, Thom Yorke’s high tenor, and lyrics that capture the social isolation so common in a modern technological society.

Thus, for the month of March — the same month the album was released in 1995 — PopMatters will examine The Bends in all of its angsty glory, pulling it apart track-by-track, analyzing the circumstances of its creation, and placing it in its pre-Y2K context. Radiohead may have gone on to give the music world a wealth of treasured music after The Bends, but 20 years later there’s certainly plenty to say about this recording. It hasn’t faded out yet. — Brice Ezell