Friday Fun: My Top Ten 90s Songs, #9

#9:  "The Bends" by Radiohead (off of The Bends (1995))

The knee-jerk Radiohead album to pick in any 90s retrospective is 1997's OK Computer, the album that convinced people that Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood and the rest of them were geniuses.  The problem is . . . I don't really like OK Computer.  It feels like a transitional album between normal "rock band" music and the truly weird and amazing Kid A (2000).  "Karma Police" is a good song, but listening to the rest of it always me think of the other, better Radiohead material that came later.  Part of it, I think, is because I got into weirder, more experimental Radiohead stuff late (as in the last five years or so), so I sort of absorbed it all at once, rather than as it came out.

By contrast, I liked The Bends, the album that came before OK Computer, right from the time it came out.
The Bends is not particularly ground-breaking or experimental; it's just a really, really good 90s alternative album.  It's basically like the best Bush album that one could imagine.  Some might see that as damning with faint praise, but Bush was a pretty good band that made some memorable songs, and The Bends just took that basically formula and did it better than the originators.

Part of the reason no one talks about The Bends is because the members of Radiohead themselves, especially Yorke, talk about how eager they were to break out of the model represented by The Bends when they recorded OK Computer.  If one is convinced that Radiohead are geniuses, and Radiohead thinks that the stuff before OK Computer kind of sucks, then it stands to reason that you will conclude that the band must be right about their own work and that The Bends is not that great.  On the other hand, Yorke also talked about how eager he was to break away from OK Computer when he recorded Kid A/Amnesiac, and no one argues that OK Computer sucks in retrospect.

This leads in to a legitimate critique of Radiohead as a whole, which is that their "tortured artist" pose is forced and self-indulgent.  In this, I think the members of Radiohead are enabled by a segment of their fan base, who tend to act as if the band (and Yorke in particular) are forging new forms of human consciousness and understanding, as opposed to just being some dudes who make a bunch of cool songs.  These are the same people who argue that Thom Yorke has a "tremendous singing voice," which is simply not true.  He certainly has a unique singing voice, and it is used effectively to create the kind of atmosphere that Radiohead is known for, but it is not a "tremendous" voice.  I mean, let's get real.

Anyway, back to The Bends.  The album definitely has tracks that signal the direction the band will head, particularly the haunting "Street Spirit (Fade Out)" and "Fake Plastic Trees" (though I like "Street Spirit" much better).  "My Iron Lung" is Radiohead's (successful) attempt to do a Nirvana song.  "Black Star" is an underrated deep cut (one with an awesome Gillian Welch cover that I just found).

But my favorite track is the title track.  Sometimes you just want a rock song, and this is a great rock song.  Coming from a band that likes to constantly prove how different and inventive they are, "The Bends" show that Radiohead is also a great rock band.  They may disdain it, but this straight forward stuff is pretty great, and part of me wishes they did more of this kind of music.  They are clearly very good at it, to a degree that is often lost in the focus on all of the more avant garde parts of their discography.

I guess this makes me a "rockist," but I like guitar-based music and songs with a basic narrative structure.  It's not fashionable, perhaps, to be into that, but I am.  And Radiohead is really good at making that kind of music when they are so inclined.  As "The Bends" shows.


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