Friday, January 11, 2008

Radiohead - 'The Bends'

Rock in the mid-nineties was dominated by one mantra: back-to-basics. Following two prior decades of progressive artists who pushed the genre's envelope beyond the three minute single toward sprawling and complex mind treks, many bands of the last decade reacted and traversed into the opposite direction. Shorter tunes returned during the nineties, and the aural odysseys created by studio perfectionists such as Pink Floyd and Steely Dan all but disappeared from popular rock.

Radiohead's The Bends was one exception to this trend.

The Bends is one of those albums you have to listen to with headphones in order to truly understand. Much of the record features trippy, computerized sound effects layered on top of understated guitar, and the band carefully utilizes feedback and squelch that you would otherwise miss on normal speakers. Of course, such computerized blends would later become part of the band's signature sound.

From a production standpoint the record offers several different introduction techniques that grant each track its own identity. The title song, for instance, makes use of a circus parade for its beginning that is presumably extracted from an old movie. 'Bones' leads in with an alien hum that could have easily been dubbed into the score of an X-Files episode. And 'Black Star' commences with a throwback fade-in used by many other bands of yesteryear. Such speculative procession grants a warmth that can really be appreciated---it feels like a freshly discovered secret every time these experimental intros are heard.

Lyrically, The Bends is about as brooding one can get. "I need to wash myself again to hide all the dirt and pain / I'd be scared that there's nothing underneath," and "So pay me money and take a shot / Lead-fill the hole in me," and "I want to be part of the human race" are all profound snapshots of a protagonist in despair. However, lacking the raw angst present in many of the grunge songs of the same era, the tracks on this record craft its self-deprecation with such consideration and eloquence that one cannot help but see a glimmer of hope shining through all that yearning and anguish.

Nevertheless, in light of the advanced studio techniques and abstruse lyrics, The Bends's real gimmick is the anthemic conclusions that anchor every song. Many of the songs follow the same enticing formula: seductive intros, alluring crescendos, and resonating culminations. But it's a formula that never gets old. As much as Radiohead tries to be cerebral on this album, it is its lucid hooks that drive the listener to rotate this record uninterrupted from beginning to end. And it is that simple pop blueprint that relates The Bends to the other back-to-basics records of its time.

For a band that has created classics with nearly every album it has recorded, controversy certainly arises when one makes the brash move to call The Bends Radiohead's greatest record. With the onslaught of acclaim that continues to attach itself to this band, to suggest that Radiohead peaked on their second album is probably hearsay to many fans. However, in light of that acknowledgment, I maintain that very assertion.

For me, what makes The Bends Radiohead's best is its portrayal of a band at its most comfortable before its fans defined what comfortable should be (if Radiohead released an album similar to this today fans would riot). It is an album that extends the fresh excellence of Pablo Honey a little bit further, just prior to the band's music becoming reliant on computerization and the conceptual.

I am including four songs that accurately portray the feeling of this album: 'Planet Telex,' 'The Bends,' 'Bones,' and 'Just.' You can stream all below:

Radiohead - 'Planet Telex'

Radiohead - 'The Bends'

Radiohead - 'Bones'

Radiohead - 'Just'

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