What is it anyways? It: That which Thom Yorke says you can force but will not come, that which you can taste but will not form, that which you can crush but is always near, that which chases you home crying that everything and everyone is broken? The answer to the riddle of “Planet Telex,” the opener from Radiohead’s The Bends, might be any number of things, none of them good: depression, evil, death, anxiety, time, waste—one way or another, Yorke’s talking about the inexorable drag of existence.
And yet listen to “Planet Telex,” and you feel kind of great. A synthetic wind sound floats in, and then there's that now-classic arrangement of echoing electric piano and syncopated drums: bah (daba-dum), bah (daba-daba-dum). I always see hot air balloons above a pastoral landscape when I listen. It’s trippy but not unpleasant; Yorke whines that everything is broken, but who can tell what he’s saying anyways?
Similar moments of cognitive dissonance dot The Bends, Radiohead’s sophomore record, which turned 20 years old on Friday. Listening to it now, knowing how Radiohead’s career has gone, the disaffection in Yorke’s lyrics seems all the more pronounced, and the joy in the guitars seems all the more shocking. Go read the words to the title track, for example, and it’s a devastating account of ennui and the slipperiness of authentic human connection—"the planet is a gunboat in a sea of fear" should be on Yorke's Twitter bio. But play the track through some good speakers, and then try not to grin and air-guitar.
It’s not that there’s no darkness in the music. “My Iron Lung” interrupts its twanging, walking-speed verses with chaotic riffs and screams; “Just” surges forward like the pointed finger of the accusatory narrator. And in the context of their time, the grouchiness of the band’s outlook could kind of be assumed, songs unheard, because playing chunky guitars with a tormented singer in 1995 meant you’d catch the same fans as Nirvana. But tune after tune here resolves with a grand, shredding climax—Yorke sings of defeat but the band plays like victory.
Coming off of their huge hit “Creep” and the middling debut Pablo Honey, the band reportedly struggled majorly in the studio, fighting and writing and rewriting to make the album better. The effort shows in the intricacy of The Bends' structures and arrangements, in the way that you can tell the band never wants you to fully anticipate the next turn of the songs. It also shows in the production, which is as crisp as Radiohead's ever had. “Oh, the final mixes are a bit brash,” John Leckie, the producer whose work was largely scrapped towards the end of the mixing process, recently complained to NME. “They’re kind of, ‘Zing! Look at me!’ Which I didn't think the band wanted.”
The results are considered a rock landmark now, but the album received mixed reviews at the time, and Yorke has since disowned the Coldplay forebearer "High and Dry." He also seems to think that at least one of the album's messages didn't connect, on the hypnotic closing track: "All of our saddest songs have, somewhere in them, at least a glimmer of resolve. 'Street Spirit' has no resolve. Our fans are braver than I to let that song penetrate them—or maybe they don't realize what they're listening to. They don't realize that 'Street Spirit' is about staring the fucking devil right in the eyes. And knowing, no matter what the hell you do, he’ll get the last laugh.”
The rest of Radiohead’s career can be seen as a realigning, bringing the music in tune with Yorke’s skewed, dour vision. There are grand moments of triumph on 1997’s OK Computer, but the songs are also weirder than anything on The Bends, and the big moments are always shot through with some queasy sonic element. After that, the band swapped in chilly electronics for guitars; when riffing has returned, as on “Optimistic” or “Bodysnatchers,” it’s been to add uneasy textures.
Radiohead fans commonly sort themselves into camps that either prefer the pre-OK Computer or post-OK Computer sound (everyone loves OK Computer though). I’m a latter-day Radiohead adherent who never fully connected to The Bends, and I think it might be because of the gulf between words and sounds—the band has always worked best for me when the statement they’re making is cohesive and total, an inky black snuggie in which to swath oneself. But I’ll admit that in the past few years, Radiohead has achieved an uncomfortable singularity; joy has been almost (almost!) entirely leeched from 2011’s King of Limbs and Yorke’s solo work. Listening to The Bends now reminds that this great band is great not only because it gives form to a certain dark and unspeakable truth about modern life, but that it can, when it wants, defy it.