It may not be their most critically revered album but The Bends is probably my personal favorite Radiohead album. It may be because it was the first of their records that I heard that it has such a connection for me, but I don’t think it’s the main reason.
Looking back at historical reviews, you get the sense that many critics at the time believed that this was the work of an Indy band trying to move into “stadium rock” and follow along the likes of U2, who are mentioned in several reviews at the time. In hindsight, I think they were both right in the sense that it elevated Radiohead towards the the huge success they are now, but also wrong in their assumption that this album marks a turn towards “stadium rock.” Instead it shows a band who are starting to experiment in ways that they develop a lot further on their next album “Kid A”.
“Fake Plastic Trees” is my favorite track from the album and a great example of the experimental elements starting to push through in their sound. You can hear clearly that the origin of this piece comes from a singer songwriter approach, with acoustic guitar and vocals forming the center or the track. You add to that electric guitar, bass, strings, organ and percussion, and it has the basis of what you would expect to hear on a “stadium rock” track of the 90’s, but their implementation and compositional structure is far from it.
Initially, the mix on the majority of the track is fairly space with many of the elements of the track mixed so low in the mix that you can only sense hints of them.
When they are all brought to the front and center of the track in the second third of the track, they have the sonic signature weight of what you would expect from stadium rock. However, they are doing things very differently to what you would expect from that sound.
The lead guitar sound is a great example as it distortionally falls over itself compositionally far closer to a “sonic youth” or “MBV” then anything you would expect to see on the closing act of a main stage at Glastonbury at that time.
It’s this experimentation that has marked Radiohead so far apart from other bands of that time on the same scale. Although the critics didn’t seem to bite onto this part of their sound at the time, its clear to hear now that Radiohead were sharpening their teeth – all be it subtly – on this record for their later works.