Sound — 9
By the time Radiohead's second full-length album hit record store shelves, the Blur vs. Oasis Britpop battle was set in full swing. Not to be lost in the shuffle, Radiohead recruited producer John Leckie (best known for his work with the Stone Roses and the Fall) and ended up creating an arena-rock masterpiece. Though Pablo Honey showed the band were already competent musicians, the songs were plagued for the most part with a sense that anybody could have written them, given enough practice. On The Bends, Radiohead forge an identity. Thom's lyrics become far more vague, for one. This is also the first album where it feels like Thom's bombastic tenor isn't carrying most of these songs - the band manage to keep up quite nicely. Jonny Greenwood's effect-laden solos make their first appearance here. Colin Greenwood's bass lines are mixed high here, giving the songs another layer of fullness they lacked on previous efforts.
Lyrics — 10
The album kicks off with the spacey "Planet Telex," reportedly recorded while the band was drunk. Ed O'Brien and Jonny Greenwood create walls of tremolo guitar while Thom shouts lyrics about everything being broken. Though a relatively weak composition in it's own right, Leckie's production touches (delay on the keyboard lines) are really what make this song great. "The Bends" opens with a simple open chord riff that's actually very similar in feel to R.E.M.'s "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" Really, this song demonstrates how much better the band had become with straight-forward rockers since the last album. Everything, from Jonny's licks to the soft bridge just fit perfectly into place. "High and Dry" was recorded during a session for Pablo Honey but ultimately left off that album. One wonders why, given that this song would have been the best one on that album if they'd included it. Was it too good? It fits in nicely on The Bends nevertheless. A largely acoustic pop song, the lyrics here manage to be vaguely meaningful, even though Thom claims it was written as a joke. Still, Thom endowed the song with one of the hookiest choruses of the entire Radiohead catalog despite it's supposed toss-off status. "Fake Plastic Trees" is another largely acoustic number, this time with Thom singing about plastic surgery. I'll admit it took me a while to get into this song, but it was well worth the wait. The arrangement here is very minimal (just Thom's acoustic and some spooky string support, with a brief full-band mid-section), but it makes the song all the more affecting. It's truly a beautiful song that must be heard at least 4 or 5 times to begin fully appreciating it. Thom was apparently so emotionally overwhelmed by the song that he broke down in tears after recording the second and final take. "Bones" marks the return of the tremolo guitar, and yet again it's used to mask a weaker tune. This time it works less effectively than on "Planet Telex," however. "Nice Dream" is another soft ballad, with jangly arpeggiated chords and a string section making this one of the mellower tracks this album has to offer... until Jonny's solo kicks in completely out of nowhere. Though Jonny had showed a basic mastery of the alternative guitar solo on Pablo Honey, here he manages to create something completely his own. Jonny creates his own scales here, to great effect. They manage to be melodic and noisy, a rare feat indeed. "Just" is an attempt at creating another "Creep." And for the most part, it outclasses "Creep" in every way. Jonny's lead guitar licks here follow Thom's vocals, leading to a Beatles-esque effect before launching into the straight-ahead grunge chorus. More guitar cacaphony is present here courtesy of Mr. Greenwood, as are some of the most energetic vocals Thom's put to record yet. It's no coincidence that "Just" is immediately followed by "My Iron Lung," originally included on the aptly named My Iron Lung EP in response to the fans' demands for "Creep" to be played at every show. Given that "Just" was designed to be the big single here, the band couldn't help but get their shot in here. The instrumental backing here is what I can only describe as "generic Radiohead," which isn't really a problem given Thom's truly twisted but somewhat humorous lyrics here. Lines like "suck your teenage thumb" make it all worthwhile. The album shifts into gentle mode here with the majestic "Bulletproof... I Wish I Was," a song everyone can relate to. The song itself is the simplest on the album instrumentally, but John Leckie's studio wizardry creates a song that truly haunts you for days. Thom's vocals are heavily doused in reverb, making him sound a thousand miles away as he makes a sincere cry for strength. Ed O'Brien recorded backing vocals for this track without hearing it, making it all the more eerie that they fit the song so well. This song is often overlooked (probably given it's position between the more loved "My Iron Lung" and "Black Star") and consequently underrated. Like "Fake Plastic Trees", this one takes repeated listens to fully appreciate. "Black Star" finds Radiohead back in Beatles mode. Though the riff is very similar to that of "The Bends," here it jangles rather than roars. Thom's tells a story about his lover who he slowly loses to mental illness. It's an odd touch to match such somber lyrics with a happy pop ditty, but it works here. Thom's soaring falsettos at the tail end of the song make the whole song worth hearing again. "Sulk" was one of the band's earlier songs, and it shows. The melody is overly simple here and rather forgettable. It's worth mentioning that the lyric "just like your dad" in the chorus was originally "just shoot your gun," but was changed for this version because the band didn't want it perceived as a tribute to the recently deceased Kurt Cobain of Nirvana. The album closes out with "Street Spirit (Fade Out)." This was the song that forever erased Radiohead's status as a one-hit wonder in the UK. In the US, not so much. The song is based on a deceivingly simple arpeggiated picking pattern on an electric guitar, eventually joined by a string section (thanks again, John Leckie). Thom's lyrics about the threat of urbanism to the individual foreshadow the beginning of a new direction for Radiohead.
Overall Impression — 9
The Bends is rightly halied as a classic of alternative '90s rock, and rightly so. Unlike most so-called alternative classics, this one is hardly overrated. Out of 12 tracks, there are only a few bummers and even those have redeemable moments. Having created a Britpop masterpiece, Radiohead would move in a completely new direction on their next album, OK Computer. Some versions include "Killer Cars" at the end of the album.