While their debut efforts, the 1992 EP Drill and 1993 studio album Pablo Honey, were decently regarded by critics, they were both met with a general shrug by the masses, who considered its grungy sound derivative of Nirvana at a time when damn near everyone was imitating the reluctant Seattle superstars. Most listeners didn't consider the tracklists of Radiohead's EP and album particularly memorable save for "Creep", the band's first hit, and indeed this consensus would become more widely adopted with time. Radiohead's second studio album, meanwhile, saw a change in direction for the band, introducing more layered sounds and more fleshed-out, cryptic, and emotionally candid lyrics that set the stage for the band's increasingly abstract and experimental follow-up material.
Blending elements of Britpop and Post-Grunge, The Bends saw a much more positive response than its predecessor, being praised by listeners as well as by critics in the UK, who praised its combination of an arena-friendly sound with emotionally-driven artistry. In the US, critics were considerably more mixed, in part due to the album's more atmospheric sound compared to the grunge boom (which was in its mainstream twilight in the wake of Kurt Cobain's suicide the previous year, but was still dominating the American music scene at the time), but they too would go on to appraise the album in the following decades. The album was also a considerable commercial success, peaking at No. 4 on the UK Albums Chart and No. 22 on the Billboard 200 the following year, going on to become the 55th best-selling album of 1995 and the 43rd best-selling album of 1996 in the UK. The album was also certified quadruple-platinum in the UK, triple-platinum in Canada, platinum in the US, the EU, and New Zealand, and gold in Argentina, Belgium, and the Netherlands. True to critics' predictions, this success would end up paving the way for the even greater heights achieved by OK Computer just two years later.
In retrospect, between its solidifying Radiohead as rock tastemakers and its inspiring the next generation of British music through the glut of Britpop acts that saw fit to emulate its likenesses (Muse, Coldplay, etc), the legacy of The Bends has not been understated. Rolling Stone gave it the 111th spot on their "500 greatest albums" list, and Q Magazine gave it the #2 spot on their "greatest albums" list... defeated only by Radiohead's own OK Computer. Despite this, no single from the album was able to surpass or even match the gargantuan success of "Creep".
The Bends was supported by five singles: "My Iron Lung", "High and Dry"/"Planet Telex" (released as a double-A-side), "Fake Plastic Trees", "Just", and "Street Spirit (Fade Out)".
- "Planet Telex" (4:19)
- "The Bends" (4:06)
- "High and Dry" (4:17)
- "Fake Plastic Trees" (4:50)
- "Bones" (3:09)
- "(Nice Dream)" (3:53)
- "Just" (3:54)
- "My Iron Lung" (4:36)
- "Bullet Proof..I Wish I Was" (3:28)
- "Black Star" (4:07)
- "Sulk" (3:42)
- "Street Spirit (Fade Out)" (4:12)
Immerse your soul in tropes.
- Adult Fear: "Bones" is based on the very realistic fear of becoming crippled by old age, a fear that becomes particularly prominent as one's adulthood progresses; the contrast between the narrator's huge amounts of physical activity in his childhood and him becoming next-to-immobilized by arthritis is an especially common focus of rumination among people in regards to the aging process.
- Alliterative Title: "Street Spirit".
- Big "NO!": Though the audio for it isn't heard, the female thief visibly mimes one at the end of the US video for "High and Dry" upon finding a time bomb in her takeout.
- Bond One-Liner: The final line in "High and Dry" ("don't leave me dry") is depicted as this in the US video, where it's sung by the restaurant owner after he kills the thieves with a bomb in their takeout container.
- Brown Note: The music video for "Just" begins with a man lying down in the middle of the street and refusing to budge. As people gather, they ask him (all the dialogue being in subtitles, as they are drowned out by the music) why he's lying there, and after refusing over and over again, he finally caves in. The camera zooms in on his mouth as he's speaking, but with the subtitles suddenly removed, the audience has no idea what he's saying (it doesn't help that this is shot from a variety of angles to make this more difficult to comprehend). The final scene of the video is of all the people around him lying on the ground in the same posture, his words presumably having had the exact same effect on them as on him.
- According to some lip-readers, the close-up has him repeating "God help me, I'll tell you," and it's implied that he's actually saying it during the shot of Radiohead looking out the window.
- Cover Version: Peter Gabriel covered "Street Spirit (Fade Out)" on his 2010 Cover Album Scratch My Back. Radiohead, unfortunately, declined the opportunity to cover one of Gabriel's songs in turn for And I'll Scratch Yours; according to Gabriel, the band were originally planning on covering Gabriel's "Wallflower" for the album, but ultimately backed out because they disliked Gabriel's cover.
- *Crack!* "Oh, My Back!": The narrator of "Bones" expresses his fear of this as he approaches old age.
- Creator Backlash: Done in-universe with "My Iron Lung", which Radiohead wrote as a response towards the success of "Creep" and their resentment of it.
- Creator Provincialism: Slightly present in "My Iron Lung", the chorus of which mentions a Belisha beacon. These structures, used to denote crosswalks and often seen in conjunction with more ubiquitous zebra crossings, are only really found in Britain and a small handful of countries influenced by them, with other nations such as the United States opting for zebra crossings alone.
- Deliberately Monochrome: The video for "Street Spirit (Fade Out)" and the British video for "High and Dry".
- Deliberate VHS Quality: A unique example of this trope in that it entails a still image: the cover photo is a frame from a VHS camcorder recording of Stanley Donwood and Thom Yorke going around and filming various objects, analog artifacts and all. The duo specifically captured the image by photographing a television screen while playing back the finished tape. The method is far more obtuse than just taking even a disposable film camera and photographing an object of choice (in this case, a CPR dummy), but it lends a unique kind of grittiness that a regular photograph wouldn't be able to provide.
- Deus Angst Machina: This is a really angsty album, dealing with everything from stagnant relationships to self-loathing to how futile life is.
- Downer Ending: "Street Spirit" is in the running for being one of the saddest album closers of all time, even though it's on a pretty brooding and moody album. This can be attributed to its somber sound and its lyrics that deal with how life is pointless, death is inevitable, and resistance is futile.
- Driven to Suicide: The "lead fill the hole in me" line in "Bullet Proof..I Wish I Was". Melody Maker published an article around the time using the lyrics of the track as evidence that Thom Yorke was destined to go the way of Kurt Cobain (incidentally, the album began production while Cobain was still alive; his suicide led to the band removing references to gun violence in "Sulk" to avoid anyone from making a connection to Cobain that was never meant to be there in the first place).
- Establishing Character Moment: After the huge Early Installment Weirdness of Drill and Pablo Honey, "Fake Plastic Trees" was this for the band as a whole. The themes of decay, alienation, and pollution, the falsetto vocals, the orchestra-influenced instrumentation, the dour tone, and the accompanying Surreal Music Video would all become part of the band's Signature Style in the years to come. Likewise, the album was the first the band worked on with Nigel Godrich and Stanley Donwood, both major contributors to their musical and visual aesthetic.
- Everything Is an iPod in the Future: "Fake Plastic Trees" bemoans and laments this trope, implementing it into a relationship with a "fake girl" in a world where everything's made of petroleum products.
- Fading into the Next Song: The outro of "Planet Telex" segues seamlessly into the intro of "The Bends".
- Gambit Pileup: The US video for "High and Dry" uses this as its driving plot device, revolving around a band of thieves and their unspecified enemies conspiring against one another at the same time in a diner, with the implication being that everyone in the video is in on someone's plot.
- Growing Up Sucks: The general theme of "Bones", with the narrator noting how he "used to fly like Peter Pan" in his youth, but is now left near-immobilized by arthritis in his old age.
- Hope Spot: "(Nice Dream)" is the only relative area of a lack of angst-fueled sadness on this album, but even then it's the narrator retreating into an oasis of happiness that's only accessible in their mind.
- In Medias Res:
- "Black Star" starts this way, fading in mid-guitar solo and opening with lyrics describing the middle of the narrator's day.
- The US video for "High and Dry" starts in the middle of a convoluted series of overlapping conspiracies, with the root cause of them all (a pair of thieves stealing money from an ambiguously notable old man) only being revealed partway through via flashbacks.
- In the Style of...: "Street Spirit (Fade Out)" was written as a homage to R.E.M., of whom the members of Radiohead were fans. Radiohead would end up accompanying R.E.M. as a supporting act during the latter's 1995 tour for Monster, and R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe's advice to Thom Yorke for coping with the stress of touring would influence both Radiohead's "How to Disappear Completely" and R.E.M.'s "Disappear".
- Mohs Scale of Rock and Metal Hardness: Ranges from 2 ("Bullet Proof..I Wish I Was", "Street Spirit (Fade Out)") to 6 ("The Bends", "Just") "My Iron Lung" goes back and forth from 4 to 7. Other songs like "Planet Telex" and "Black Star" are a 5.
- Mood Whiplash: Occurs within "My Iron Lung" between the quietly grim verses and distorted choruses.
- Mundane Made Awesome: "Fake Plastic Trees", possibly the most angsty song about artificial trees— which are only mentioned incidentally.
- New Sound Album: Compared to the straight grunge of the Drill EP and Pablo Honey, The Bends sees the introduction of a more atmospheric Alternative Rock sound that melds together elements of Post-Grunge and Britpop, allowing the album to sound in-tune with the zeitgeist while avoiding the derivative nature of the band's previous work. The band even started exploring electronic effects on songs like the opener "Planet Telex" and "Bullet Proof..I Wish I Was", which would become far more prominent on later releases.
- Obligatory Bondage Song: A case could be made for the first verse of "Sulk".
- One-Word Title: "Bones", "Just" and "Sulk".
- Piss Take Rap: "The Bends" has a post-chorus section that has Thom doing a bit of this. It was intended as a joke, but it was written too well for anyone to notice. Thom would later make a more serious attempt at rap on "A Wolf at the Door" nearly a decade later.
- Real Life Writes the Plot: "Sulk" was originally written as a response to the Hungerford Massacre, a mass shooting that occurred in England just two years after Radiohead's formation as On a Friday. However, because Kurt Cobain committed suicide by shotgun during The Bends' production, the lyrics were rewritten to remove any overt references to the massacre, particularly with the closing line's first half being changed from "just shoot your gun" to "just like your dad," so that audiences didn't mistake the song as being about Cobain.
- Refrain from Assuming: "Street Spirit (Fade Out)" is often shortened to "Fade Out" due to it being the phrase in the title that appears in the chorus. Similarly "Just" is sometimes appended with "(You Do It to Yourself)".
- Self-Deprecation: "My Iron Lung" is typically thought to be the band expressing their Creator Backlash towards "Creep" both in-universe and in real-life, with lines such as "this is our new song, just like the last one: a total waste of time" reflecting the band's disdain towards the song's popularity eclipsing everything else about them.
- "Bones" namedrops Peter Pan.
- The ascending main riff in "Just" pays homage to that of "Shot By Both Sides" by Magazine; John Leckie, who produced this album, had previously produced the Magazine song's parent album, 1978's Real Life.
- A shot early in the video for "Street Spirit (Fade Out)" mimics the infamous photo of Evelyn McHale's 1947 suicide, tying in with the music video's intro of Thom throwing himself off the back of a caravan.
- The Show Must Go Wrong: The guitar riff that starts at about 2:50 into the song "Fake Plastic Trees" was supposed to start a half measure later, but was put in at the wrong time in mixing. The band decided that it sounded better the way it was, and left it in.
- Surreal Music Video: "Fake Plastic Trees" and "Street Spirit". The latter was directed by Jonathan Glazer.
- Title Track: The second track off of this album.
- Truck Driver's Gear Change: "Sulk" ascends from G to A for its guitar solo and final chorus.
- Word Salad Lyrics: Shades of it are present throughout the album, owing to it taking a more abstract direction overall compared to Radiohead's previous efforts, but it's most present in the chorus for "My Iron Lung":"The headshrinkers
They want everything
My uncle Bill
My Belisha beacon"
- "Immerse your soul in love."