“I’ve had enough,” were the not-so-immortal words of Thom Yorke following Radiohead’s rise through the singles charts. Creep had made an impression but pulling out of Reading Festival left Radiohead reeling, mentally and physically. So much of Radiohead and their work is a reaction to the previous containment period, the satisfaction and destruction of being completely and utterly spent. In Rainbows processes this later for the band, but The Bends follows up on the mounting success of touring, of results and high bars, all the horrors of Pablo Honey and the time between it. Radiohead began their period proper following the release of their debut, which is the usual state of bands first bursting onto the scene. But the quality gap between a clunky-yet-strong first piece and a rousing second is massive, a ravine between the two is formed.
Feeling tepid on a first listen and experiencing a mental block when hearing the opening riffs to the title track, The Bends is a beast of an album which can rattle your cage in the best way. It thumps away with its moody, muddy exploration of evolving a sound which was not quite there in previous iterations. Yorke presents some of his smartest vocals through this loose, Britpop-like album. Blur and Pulp reunions still lingering on the mind, Radiohead does of course brush off the broader notions of the era with The Bends and its guitar-heavy, light-grunge inspirations. It is a far cry from the loneliness and the whining temptations of Creep, a boisterous surge comes through the instrumentals surrounding Yorke’s vocals, a second-guessing fear washing over High and Dry.
Repetition of those titular words as Johnny Greenwood works his magic is a sincere peak for Radiohead. Pairing Fake Plastic Trees and the R.E.M.-like Bones gives The Bends nice structure, a place for Radiohead to work out where their sound needs to go. Thankfully it does not take long for Yorke and company to wise up to what they can do, and it comes to life on the wandering and affectionate [Nice Dream]. They create a lushness without strings, an acoustic layer to bolster the steady beats from Philip Selway. Radiohead is given perhaps too much credit for how intimate and disarming their music is, but the proof is there on The Bends, a sturdy second record which necessitated a real shift.
Shunt enough bands into a genre and eventually they begin to attract those who can draw comparisons between them, present or not. Whether The Bends refers to the decompression which it shares a name with, the sudden decrease in pressure following the first album, or even an increase following the success of Creep, is a fascination. Radiohead was certainly done and dusted with whatever it was they saw themselves as on Pablo Honey, and perhaps not worrying about that as much on their sophomore release is what brought them to The Bends. Thankfully they pursued it further, the attitude of self-interest above all, in singing honestly and with fearful impressions left consistently.