Jigsaw Falling Into Place: Revisiting Radiohead’s ’90s Output

“Where do we go from here?”

Released in 1995 to widespread critical acclaim, The Bends cemented Radiohead’s place among Britain’s most notable acts, making irrelevant the “grunge” tag that had dogged the band since its early days while simultaneously obviating the Britpop movement (though that didn’t stop lazy critics from lumping the band in with Oasis, Blur and Pulp). One of the decade’s classic, slow-burning rock records, The Bends found Radiohead embracing their strengths, expanding their musical palette and tackling weightier, more substantive subject matter. Gone were the self-absorbed temper tantrums of Pablo Honey, replaced by beautifully introspective ballads, soaring prog-rock anthems and a sumptuous, overarching aesthetic. A decade later, it’s not hard to see why The Bends is often pointed to as one of the high water marks of ’90s alternative rock.

Artist: Radiohead
Album: The Bends
Subtitle: Special Collectors Edition
Label: Capitol
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/r/radiohead.bends.albumart.jpg
First date: 1995-03-15
US Release Date: 2009-03-24
UK Release Date: 2009-03-23

Rating: 8

Extras rating: 9

“High and Dry”, the album’s first single, predated even the songs on Pablo Honey and the version that appears here was, in fact, originally tracked during the Pablo Honey sessions. It’s mind-boggling to think that the band had a pop gem like this tucked away all along and it’s even more confusing to hear that Yorke had to be convinced by the label to include the song on the album (a decision that he regrets to this day). “Fake Plastic Trees”, meanwhile, is an inviting acoustic lament for all that consumerism, globalization and modern life hath wrought. “Just” is still a delicious slice of overdriven guitar pop — its guitars alternately crunch and coo in accordance with the Pixies’ loud/quiet/loud dynamic. “Bullet Proof…I Wish I Was”, a hazy, dreamlike ballad, sounds something like Morrissey on tranquilizers. And “Street Sprit (Fade Out)”, with its cascading guitar arpeggios and solemn imagery, stands to this day as one of the most devastating tunes the band has ever penned. In interviews, Yorke has attributed a mystical quality to the song, claiming that “Street Spirit” chose the band as its “messenger”. As such, it closes out the album, as it often does Radiohead live sets.

Like the album itself, the bonus material appended to The Bends contains much worth revisiting. First up is the My Iron Lung EP, which was released in 1994, as the band struggled to record their sophomore LP. The title track, built around a sarcastic reference to the band’s dependence on and confinement by the success of “Creep”, initially offered listeners a disorienting glimpse of what was to come. “The Trickster” meanwhile, alludes to the grimy guitar tones of “Just”, while “Punchdrunk Lovesick Singalong” foreshadows the detached spaceyness of OK Computer. “Lozenge of Love” sounds like the band’s attempt to pen a folky ballad along the lines of “Norwegian Wood”, whereas the mostly instrumental “Permanent Daylight” is cut from the same cloth as album tracks like “Planet Telex”. While not nearly as accomplished as the album that it previewed, the My Iron Lung EP can now be seen as an important and necessary bridge between Pablo Honey and The Bends.

Maquiladora, one of two B-sides to the double A-side “High and Dry”/”Planet Telex”, features fantastically phased-out guitars courtesy of Jonny and portends the band’s later obsession with the work of globalization critic Naomi Klein. The second B-side, a sped-up, almost punkish reading of “Killer Cars” is largely forgettable and sounds like the work of a less mature band.

From the “Fake Plastic Trees” single, we get the atypically loungey “India Rubber”, “How Can You Be Sure?”, an acoustic ballad from which Wheatus’ “Teenage Dirtbag” seems to have been derived and acoustic readings of “Fake Plastic Trees”, “Bullet Proof…I Wish I Was” and “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”. As before, the acoustic cuts prove to be the real treat here, though the band does struggle a bit with the complex arrangement on “Street Spirit” (it’s worth noting that they now perform note-perfect renditions of the song live).

“Street Spirit” is arguably the most accomplished song on The Bends and its B-sides fare similarly well. “Talk Show Host”, which originally appeared on the soundtrack to Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet has long been viewed as one of the band’s strongest non-album cuts. A delirious blend of funk, mid ’90s indie rock and Beatles-indebted Mellotron worship, the song sounds quite unlike anything else in the Radiohead catalog and remains a fan favorite to this day. “Bishop’s Robes”, which would later reappear backing “No Surprises” on the Japanese Running From Demons EP, sounds like Radiohead’s answer to the Smiths’ “Headmaster Ritual”; a wooly indictment of schoolmaster cruelty. And “Banana Co.”, despite its dated feel, is inexplicably hard to deny.

The bonus disc also appends a BBC session from 1994, notable for its inclusion of “Maquiladora” as well as two of the album’s best tracks (“Just” and “Street Spirit”).

Of the three reissues discussed here, The Bends easily features the best video content. As with Pablo Honey, we get all five of the music videos produced to promote the album (all of which previously appeared on last year’s The Best Of collection and some of which were collected on 1998’s Seven Television Commercials), as well as the Live at the Astoria clips. Of particular note are Jamie Thraves’ tantalizingly enigmatic clip for “Just” and Jonathan Glazer’s haunting, formally brilliant take on “Street Spirit”. Additionally, we’re treated to both a “2 Meter” session and a “Later With Jools Holland” session, both from 1995, as well as three “Top of the Pops” performances.

Though at this point it should go without saying, The Bends marked a crucial turning point in Radiohead’s career and remains one of the finest examples of ’90s alternative rock. If you count yourself among its many fans, you’ll likely find that there’s more than enough included here to warrant a repurchase, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the many B-sides that the second disc collects.

RATING 8 / 10