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One of the greatest albums of all time
on 6 December 2001
After people dismissed Radiohead as one hit wonders with the unprecedented success of Creep; a track that lifted an otherwise average debut LP into a multi-million seller, the Oxford quintet took decisive steps with their second album. Namely not to even attempting to match the direct, incisive genius of that one off hit and to concentrate on emotional diversity in their lyrics and a more distinguished sound. In a reversal of the fortunes Creep bought them, the early singles charted in the lower end of the UK Top 30 with Radio 1 virtually refusing a minute of airplay. That was until the closing track Street Spirit (Fade Out) shot into the top five confirming it as an all time great anthem of misery and depression and The Bends as an all time great album, full stop.
The fact that no fewer than six tracks from an album were hits is always a good sign, but little can prepare you for the epic brilliance that makes The Bends one of guitar music's greatest albums. Although not one of the greatest opening tracks ever, the feedback drenched Planet Telex; front man Thom Yorke sets the tone with the chilling couplet: "Everyone is broken/ Everything is broken." Throughout Yorke perfects his often incomprehensible falsetto that have made him one of the most recognisable voices in modern music. Track after track of musical genius follow. There are the acoustic based songs of High and Dry, Fake Plastic Trees and [Nice Dream], alongside the epic blasts of Black Star, The Bends, My Iron Lung and the brilliant Sulk. Fake Plastic Tress in particular is a fine example Radiohead's new approach of Yorke's unconventional, often rather meaningless lyrics, mellow use electric guitars and most importantly Yorke's child like vocals with the words often poorly pronounced. Somehow the combination is almost unbearably moving. The indecipherable vocals are such a priceless asset because they leave so much to the imagination. The listener often hears lyrics that often aren't the actual words, thus interpreting the songs, albeit accidentally, in their own way. Whatever you do, don't look at the words printed on the inside cover...
The more abrasive tracks are less accessible, demanding repeated listening before properly revealing themselves. Yorke was understandably none to impressed with a journalist at the time who labelled The Bends as "the depression soundtrack of 1995." Unlike their previous work, this goes far before simple confession. Thus Bones with it's three guitars feeding back by about million miles, is not as Q magazine put it when the album was voted number 6 in it's reader's poll of The 100 Greatest Albums of All Time a toe-tapping evocation of osteoporosis, but a devastating image of psychological crumbling.
If it is hard to choose a standout track it's only because nearly all of them are so brilliant. A strong candidate has to be the closing, Street Spirit (Fade Out). With it's instantly recognisable hook, Yorke's chilling vocal and strange lyrics, it provided the Radiohead with what was then their biggest hit to date and sent The Bends into the UK Album Top 5 after nearly a year on release. It still ranks as one of the most powerful and emotive songs to grace the UK charts. Perfectly encapsulating its parent album it manages through all the lyrical obsurity and metaphor to say its piece straight to the heart.