Nobody expected The Bends from Radiohead.
When the band’s second album was released in 1995, pretty much everyone assumed this would be the last we’d hear from the British quintet that gave us the grunge-era hit “Creep” two years earlier.
After all, Radiohead’s debut album, Pablo Honey, wasn’t all that good, and their music had all the earmarks of a period band with one big hit.
But The Bends didn’t sound anything like Pablo Honey. And 1995 Radiohead didn’t sound much like 1993 Radiohead. With artsier music and more oblique lyrics, the album marked a major creative and stylistic leap for the band.
From the opening hums of “Planet Telex” to the haunting closing track “Street Spirit (Fade Out),” The Bends, though few spotted it at the time, was the exact moment where one of the greatest bands of the past 25 years got serious.
Watch Radiohead’s Video for ‘Fake Plastic Trees’
Peel away the levels and layers of The Bends, and you’d still have a hard time uncovering the heart of the record. Its elusiveness is part of its appeal. “Creep” was easily digestible within the post-“Smells Like Teen Spirit” / “Loser” landscape; the songs on The Bends less so.
They take some work and determination to penetrate their purpose and meaning. Even if you’re not sure what “Fake Plastic Trees,” “Just” and “My Iron Lung” are about, their gorgeously rendered surroundings will pull you in. It’s challenging music but undeniably perceptive.
Not so surprisingly, The Bends didn’t do nearly as well as Pablo Honey. It got no further than No. 88 on the chart, Radiohead’s all-time lowest showing. “Creep” managed to creep into the Top 40; only “High and Dry” reached the Top 100, stopping at No. 78 (a couple of other songs received some alt-rock airplay, but none made it to the modern-rock Top 10).
The band’s growing reputation over the next decade eventually pushed sales to a million copies. But The Bends’ legacy is in its rebooting of Radiohead. They’d return two years later with OK Computer and start their ascent as one of the 21st century’s most significant bands.