Roaring guitar rock and synths and the voice of an angel: Radiohead’s influential second album, The Bends, is 20 today. Myf Warhurst has blown up some balloons and made it a cake to say thanks for the memories.
After the breakthrough success of Pablo Honey and its smash single, Creep, The Bends was highly anticipated. In my student house share it fast became the soundtrack to long evenings of vigorous discussions about the future (we had one back then) while drinking buckets of cheap red wine poured from a cask.
No one had money for lots of CDs in those days so when we got a new one every few weeks it was on high rotation forever. Our listening room (the lounge) had no furniture so we sat on the floor, soaking the music in, surrounded by tiny piles of salt soaking up the red wine stains that spilled from our regularly knocked over wine glasses.
When The Bends did drop fans were shocked that it didn’t sound that much like the previous Radiohead album. In fact it didn’t really sound like much else at the time at all: The Bends was post grunge and anti-Britpop.
It was Radiohead getting serious.
I’m not one for nostalgia. I love looking back, but only for a short time. I don’t want to indulge myself too much for fear I’ll get misty eyed and want to stay in the warm embrace of 90s flannelette shirts, memories of old boyfriends (or at least the ones I can remember – there were a few) and a Primal Scream CD played on loop. But revisiting this album was worth it.
It’s so glaringly obvious that this little musical time capsule is full of secrets about what Radiohead would become: that lush production, those complex arrangements and the occasional experimental leanings. On The Bends Thom Yorke’s lyrics got more impenetrable, more obtuse, yet the melodies became even more enticing.
The songs suck you in and then kick you in the guts. Still. You can almost hear the beginnings of their next album, the hugely successful OK Computer, patiently waiting in the wings. When revisiting albums after a long period of time, what once sounded fresh and alive has the potential to sound clichéd and dated, mainly because the sound of the time might have been superseded by others who did the job better.
As no one else has ever really been able to do Radiohead better than Radiohead, the only thing that feels clichéd about this album is the emotional memories I’ve attached to it. How truly 90s I was back then and how not-typically-90s sounding this album is in context. I don’t get the feelings of shame listening to this as I would some with other big 90s names.
All the hits on this album feel like there’s life left in them yet, 20 years down the line. High And Dry is still dripping with melancholy and yearning with its impossible to sing along to melody at its heart. Street Spirit is still the perfect soundtrack to the end of a bad night out where nothing means anything and the drugs don’t work (play this one to the teenagers, they’ll love it). Just is still as spider web-like, Fake Plastic Trees as mournful and lost as it felt back then.
Aside from one or two 90s guitar sounds done to death by imitators, almost everything still sounds relevant and fresh. That’s quite an achievement.
The Bends was the soundtrack to a good solid year of my youth and it still stands up musically today. Shame the same can’t be said for my fashion choices at the time.
Myfanwy Warhurst is a broadcaster at Double J radio (ABC Australia), TV presenter, Guardian columnist, music nut and general layabout.