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, peaking at #4 on the UK Albums Chart and reaching triple platinum sales in the UK and Canada as well as platinum sales in America and the European Union.
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.
- Alliterative Title: "Street Spirit".
- 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.
- The closeup 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".
- 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 tearjerkiness, 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 I Pod 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.
- Grief Song: "Street Spirit (Fade Out)", which Thom claims 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."
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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."