I have quite a few friends who are more passionate and well-versed in the expansive, daunting world of board games than I. These are the people that have every expansion pack, every collector’s item, etc. (Some of you may be reading this right now). I am not one of those people. I grew up with chess, Monopoly, and Yahtzee, not knowing anything of the world beyond Parker Bros. Then, in college, I was introduced to Settlers of Catan.
Now, many of you just rolled your eyes for one of two reasons: either because you think Catan is a confusing game played by nerds (if you’re reading this series, this probably isn’t you), or because it’s so played-out that it makes you want to vomit just hearing its name. However, for the curious person like me, Settlers of Catan serves as a perfect gateway into something much larger—a world I would never have known existed without playing it first.
What I’m trying to say is that Radiohead, like board games, is a whole universe unto itself, and their 1995 album The Bends is their Settlers of Catan.
Music, after all, is not just personal expression, but an act of widespread community with massive historical precedent.Chris Thiessen
I was in college when I first tried listening to Radiohead in earnest. I put on their 2000 album Kid A and tried desperately to decipher why Pitchfork and many others called it the greatest album of the 2000s, but I was entirely lost. I felt like “I don’t belong here,” to quote their early hit “Creep.” Kid A is dense and not remotely “catchy” in the conventional sense. And without being around for its initial cultural moment in 2000, I felt like I didn’t have a way in. “Radiohead must just be over-rated, snobby music,” I then concluded. I was wrong. But being a kid raised on ‘80s hooks and Van Halen guitar solos, I had no categories for the abstract electronic rock I was hearing. Dismayed, I shelved Radiohead for a few years before again attempting to brave the minds of Thom Yorke, Ed O’Brien, Philip Selway, and the Brothers Greenwood.
The next time I listened to Radiohead, I began with The Bends. From the very first, Greenwood’s rippling and roaring guitar and Yorke’s cool/uncool vocals grabbed me by the shoulders in a way Kid A simply couldn’t have years before. THIS was accessible to me—a brand of rock and roll not too far removed from the Britpop and alt-rock stylings rising from the hardly-flickering embers of grunge.
Accessibility in music, and certainly on The Bends, is a virtue. Accessibility recognizes that before you can pull listeners into your intimate, unique world, you must woo them there with musical conventions the audience is familiar with. Music, after all, is not just personal expression, but an act of widespread community with massive historical precedent. Thus The Bends is filled with musical pieces we’re familiar with—the soaring riffs of “The Bends” and the jangly fade-in of “Black Star,” the emotional, acoustic balladry of “Fake Plastic Trees” and the simplicity of the plea “Don’t leave me high / Don’t leave me dry.”
In all these moments, you can hear Radiohead’s influences from alternative pioneers like R.E.M. and Sonic Youth to traditional British rock acts like Queen and David Bowie. While “sounding like your influences” is often used derogatorily, synthesizing your influences into something brilliant and new as Radiohead does here is a glorious feat. It allows your audience to hold onto something familiar while disrupting convention ever so tactfully. Take for example the ballad “Fake Plastic Trees” which has the sweetness of a pop radio ballad, yet critiques the disposability and lack of authenticity inherent in such radio ballads and consumer culture at large.
Lesser bands use accessibility as a crutch, always playing to the lowest common denominator as they fill arenas with nothing more than emotional appeals and homogeneity. Radiohead’s strong access points, however, pull you further into their uniqueness. We hear this on “Bullet Proof…I Wish I Was,” where Yorke expresses his existential exhaustion and resultant emotional fragility, singing, “Limb by limb and tooth by tooth / It’s tearing up inside of me / Every day, every hour / I wish that I was bulletproof.” These themes of unbearable worldly pressure inform Radiohead’s music throughout their career, especially on subsequent albums OK Computer and Kid A which explore the isolation and paranoia of the digital age in more profound musical terms.
I couldn’t understand those categories when I first attempted to listen to Radiohead. But this is the power of accessibility, especially as it relates to The Bends. Whereas Radiohead’s later albums are decidedly more life-altering, The Bends offers us a compass and map complete with a little legend in the corner helping us to make sense of the thick electronic forests and abstract thinking that inform Radiohead’s best work. I don’t advise parachuting straight into that forest without directions like I did with Kid A. I’d start with the instruction manual, and then feel free to explore the deepest corners of one of the greatest musical worlds built in the last 50 years.