Once Upon a Time, Critics Didn’t “Get” The Bends

This week marks the 25th anniversary of Radiohead’s sophomore-slump-dodger The Bends, which arrived March 13, 1995. After two-and-half decades, the jury’s been in on The Bends. A hook-heavy album big enough to save the band from the cut-out bins of one-hit-wonderdom, and arty enough to tee up its dystopian post-rock opus OK Computer, which followed in 1997, The Bends obliterated the band’s good-not-great 1993 debut Pablo Honey and its cursed hit “Creep.” And in the process, the album mastered the craft of angsty Britpop anthemia followers like Coldplay and Muse would use to fill stadiums for decades to come.

The Critics Didn’t Get It

Suffice to say; The Bends has aged pretty well. The reviews it received upon its release, not so much. Writing for the Chicago Tribune, critic Kevin McKeough forecasted the future Rock Hall of Famers’ inevitable one-hit-wonder status, comparing “Creep” to “Loser” by Beck. (Whatever happened to that guy?) McKeough chalked up his one-star review of The Bendsto elements such as “Seattle wanna-be guitar parts,” calling the “clumsy, unpleasant guitar scorch” of “Bones” and the shimmering bad-trip psychedelia of “My Iron Lung” “particularly cringe-inducing.” “Thom Yorke‘s ethereal vocals and woebegone melodies are tuneful enough but too self-absorbed to be catchy,” the clairvoyant critic wrote, before writing Radiohead off as “alternative rock’s answer to the Moody Blues.” Oof.

Spin magazine’s Chuck Eddy was a little more redeeming, awarding The Bendsa 5/10score with a review that put the album in league with contemporary sophomore efforts by the likes of Spin Doctors, Counting Crows and The Offspring, calling it “one of those follow-up albums [that] proves the band is afraid to be pigeonholed into the only style it’s very good at.” Nailed it!

Meanwhile, legendarily cantankerous Village Voice music critic Robert Christgau writing of Yorke’s lyrical angst and their accompanying three-guitar assault: “the words achieve precisely the same pitch of aesthetic necessity as the music, which is none at all.” None? At all? Has a take ever resonated so hot?

Why Were They All So Wrong?

How did these scribes manage to miss the genius squalls of guitarist Johnny Greenwood generations then, now and in between found in alt-rock bangers like opener “Planet Telex” and “Just.” How could they be so cold to the visceral transcendence of ballads like “High and Dry” and “Fake Plastic Trees” — the album’s two biggest singles, and songs that took the melancholy loneliness and misfit despair of “Creep” to deeper levels? How was it not obvious to them that this band of Oxfordshire sonic architects were, this early on, well-studied and able enough to elevate their equally obvious college-rock influences like R.E.M., U2, The Smiths, Pixies and Pink Floyd with a devastating set of Britpop classics-on-arrival like “Bones,” “Black Star” and “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” — anthems that offered as much in the arena of head-haunting moods and melodies as they did spacious experimentation?


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10 Comments
  • Mar 27,2020 at 01:40

    I admit, it took me a few listens of “OK Computer” before it slapped me upside my sonic head and I couldn’t get enough of it! Could “The Bends,” dare I say, be the last Radiohead “pop” record? I mean, their catalogue of work thereafter became more ruminative, mystifying, and OH SO AWESOME!! I truly have no least favorite of their body of work, each album has its own character and separate meaning to me.

  • Mar 19,2020 at 20:22

    Whatever happened to Beck? I saw him play with Spoon and Cage the Elephant not that long ago. Album of the year in 2015. That’s five years ago sure, but he’s not exactly a one hit wonder, he’s been a critically acclaimed musician for almost 30 years now. He’s still a big deal, just no singles charting in the US lately (but REM’s “End of the World” is charting again apparently).

    Anyway, I love the Bends. A critic who doesn’t like Iron Lung is a critic I would avoid, because we definitely have different tastes in music.

    Why were they all so wrong? Being a music critic doesn’t mean you’re a good music critic. They were out of touch and bad at their jobs.

  • Mar 19,2020 at 18:30

    You mean the yanks didn’t get it. MOJO gave it a great review and made it album of the year.

  • Mar 18,2020 at 02:35

    I love Radiohead, Kid A being my favorite. In general I agree with those who for whatever reason or reasons do not consider The Bends to be RH’s finest hour.

  • Mar 17,2020 at 08:51

    I was surprised by the title of this article, because if i remember correctly, The Bends was extremely well received in the UK. The press pretty much acknowledged that it was a worthier accomplishment than Pablo Honey.

    In the 90s, the music scene in England, to my taste, was more interesting than in the US. Britpop/Shoegaze had this ‘je ne sais quoi’ that Grunge didn’t have.

    Once upon a time, american critics didn’t get The Bends.

  • Mar 17,2020 at 00:42

    Correction: the US critics didn’t get it (as always). In the UK, it was very well-received. I actually bought a copy the same month it was released.

  • Mar 16,2020 at 14:22

    In a digitalised world everybody can listen to multiple albums from home before buying them. Critics have become useless except for those who don’t trust their own tastes. Commercial aspects left aside the only relevant measure for the importance of a band is what it means to you as an individual.

  • Mar 15,2020 at 21:25

    March 13 marked the 25th anniversary of the album’s UK release, yet this post focuses exclusively on reviews in American publications.

    The Bends was generally well received by the British music press at the time and recognised as a vastly superior work to Pablo Honey, as far as I can see. e.g. Jennifer Nine writing for Melody Maker: “The Bends is almost unrecognisable as the work of the quiet men of Pablo Honey. …with this record, Radiohead … come from nowhere, sound like nobody”.

    Or Mark Sutherland for the NME, rating it 9/10: “Radiohead clearly resolved to make an album so stunning it would make people forget their own name, never mind [‘Creep’]. …almost every track here is a potentially huge hit single, yet as a whole the album presents a coherent, all-pervading worldview. …if this record doesn’t attain the sort of success that makes Pearl Jam look like Ruptured Dog we might just as well give up…” Sutherland says there are “only two words” for the album: “epic” and “classic”.

  • Mar 15,2020 at 14:10

    Totalmente de acuerdo,para mí The Bends,también es el mejor LP de Radiohead.La opinión de los que le pusieron a la baja,no es más importante que la mia

  • Mar 13,2020 at 16:08

    The Bends might be my favorite Radiohead album, along with In Rainbows. OK Computer is solid but some tracks, like the most often played Karma Police, just grates on me.

    2 years before this in 1993 there were 2 amazing similar guitar heavy alternative rock albums that were quite influential… The Catherine Wheel’s ‘Chrome’ and Smashing Pumpkins ‘Siamese Dream’. I’d guess they had *some* influence on The Bends.

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