It is easy for the surface-level listener to dismiss Radiohead’s “The Bends” as a compilation of arbitrary songs lost in the sea of mediocre Britpop albums. It has all of the musical elements to classify the album as such: four minute guitar-heavy songs, traditional strophic song structures that don’t experiment outside of the musical status quo of the time.
However, there are miles of depth between “The Bends” and an album like “What’s the Story Morning Glory” by Oasis. You see, Radiohead is not a band who wore sunglasses on stage and embraced the limelight in an Oasis fashion. They loathe the hit that made them famous, “Creep,” refusing to perform it live, up until this year.
The effects of fame are expressed in the album through the perspective of a writer who struggles to maintain his character, striving to grow instead of remaining comfortably stagnant in success. By rejecting this fame, Radiohead’s would reconstruct the DNA of music influenced by the band.
What separates this album from other albums of the time and the rest of Radiohead’s discography is the album’s narrative. Following the success of “Creep,” Thom Yorke, Radiohead’s primary songwriter, responds to the overwhelming spectacle of sudden fame through a powerful metaphorical theme. He compares the effects of fame to decompression sickness, or “the bends,” also expressing the isolation he finds in fame.
The opening line of the album draws you into the mind of Yorke: “Where do we go from here?” The album then explores dynamics, which acts as a storytelling aid to the narrative.
The best example can be found in “Fake Plastic Trees.” It begins with Yorke singing gently, accompanied by his acoustic guitar, and echoes the feelings of crippled, vapid love. The emotional intensity of the song is forced upon the listener as the volume crescendos, singing turning into crooning, a soul breaking under the pressure. The song showcases the band’s ability to curate synchronization between instrumentals and vocals, which would develop in their later work.
The album’s final chapter, “Street Spirit,” includes a repeating arpeggiated guitar riff in a minor key accented by strings and light percussion as a tired, anguished voice croons, “This machine will not communicate these thoughts and strain I am under.” The song’s quiet fade closes the album with a hint of hopefulness, leaving the listener fulfilled, awaiting the next breath.
“The Bends,” while brilliantly mismatched, is a very human album, juggling a range of emotions from jealousy to anger to longing, the cornucopia of emotions that accompanies isolation.
While not critically regarded as Radiohead’s “best” work, the album serves as a reminder that the complexity of loneliness persists amongst constant stimulation, fellowship and relationships. “The Bends” asserts that even in the heights of fame and fortune, loneliness will find you and make your palpable life fade away.