Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Album Of The Week/Primer Part 3: Radiohead- The Bends

I know it's really obvious what the moment is supposed to indicate, but one of my favorite scenes in all of film history has to be the part near the climax of Return Of The Jedi where Darth Vader looks back and forth between his dying son and his master of many years, Emperor Palpatine. Many other points in the development of this character are probably much more crucial to his story and destiny, but I really feel like this is the moment he's been living toward. There's something thrilling about the way he suddenly picks up the frail-but-deadly Emperor and tosses him down that shaft. It is a powerful moment in which a character holds the reins of fate in his hands: he could let his son die and evil would rule the galaxy, as it has been doing because of something he did, but he redeems himself instead. I don't know why, but Radiohead's The Bends reminds me of this. After their hit song 'Creep' had run its course, the band was left with a choice of their own: to try to repeat that success and do what the record company said, or to follow their muse and make the music they wanted to. In choosing the latter, they, like Anakin Skywalker, were redeemed.

We may as well face the fact that if Radiohead hadn't recorded The Bends they would've gone down in history as a lesser known version of Bush, another popular English band who aped the alt. rock sounds of America. There was no way to repeat the commercial success of 'Creep' and to follow the sounds of Pablo Honey would be just as pointless. Instead, Radiohead seized the moment--they would never top 'Creep' in terms of popularity, so why not make something artful and timeless instead?? I use those words--artful and timeless--very deliberately here because they're exactly what I think of when I listen to this album now. The Bends was the sound of Radiohead discovering that their destiny was for greater things, attempting to seize that destiny, and, finally, achieving it. Without OK Computer and then Kid A I don't think we could call Radiohead one of the most important bands of our time, but without The Bends they couldn't have made those albums and we wouldn't have cared.

It's exceedingly rare to listen to the result of a band realizing they can do so much more with music, stepping up their game in every conceivable area, but that's precisely what this album is. Literally everything about The Bends is better than Pablo Honey: the lyrics are scores more sophisticated and interesting, the guitar playing is more imaginative and at the same time more rocking, the music is more experimental and (for lack of a better word) cool, the cover is better (apparently, a medical dummy morphed together with Thom Yorke's face), and the artwork is better (The Bends marked the beginning of Stanley Donwood's collaborations with the band, an underrated element of Radiohead's mystique). So many things we would come to expect from Radiohead began here that it's dizzying. In fact, they would go so far from here that you effectively forget they were the ones who did 'Creep.' This is a product of them changing so much as to not even be the same band they were in 1992/1993. If you go to see them live and they happen to play 'Creep', it almost feels like a cover they're doing as a lark.

Any fan of rock music from the 90s onward probably owns a copy of this album so I suppose there isn't much sense in drawing this review out. I do want to point out that The Bends features the most extensive use of acoustic guitar of any Radiohead album. It's one of those subtle things I didn't notice until just recently, but it's true. Much as I love the throttling full force of songs like 'Just' and 'Bones', the lovely ballad 'Fake Plastic Trees' and dreamy, spacey 'Bullet Proof...I Wish I Was' show that Radiohead are every bit as good when embracing the acoustic spectrum of sounds. It really leaves you wishing they would let Thom loose on piano or acoustic guitar more often. Or, I suppose, that his solo album, The Eraser, wasn't electronic.

Now I want you to consider that the only criticism I can offer about The Bends is that it isn't even Radiohead's best album.

....uhm, you do own a copy of The Bends, don't you??

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