And we’re back with more Radiohead talk.
I had been putting off listening to Hail To the Thief for quite some time now. It’s easy to see why: pretty much everything about this album at an initial glance is unappealing. For one, it has a reputation for being one of Radiohead’s Least Good albums. I knew this going in, and for that reason it was actually pretty challenging to put the biased thoughts that stemmed from that knowledge aside. Thoughts like, “Well most people think it’s not that good, so it’s probably shit.”
On top of that, it’s 56 minutes long, which is pretty long. It takes a very good album to pull off a near full-hour long album well.
And the album cover is hideous.
But anyway, I eventually got over myself and listened to it. Don’t judge an album by its cover, as they say, probably. Let’s get into the discussion.
Hail to the Thief comes out swinging strongly in its opening track. Just by looking at the title of 2+2=5, a reference to 1984 by George Orwell, along with the name of the album, you can gather that the album is going to have a topical emphasis on the many injustices of the world and its societal systems. Power, corruption, control. Radiohead is one band that I’d think would really excel in expressing their musical takes on such topics. I was therefore pretty excited to discover that that was essentially the main concept of the album.
The opener goes from quiet and eerie in the first half to downright chaotic in the second half. One of my favorite things about this track is how incredibly eccentric Thom Yorke gets with his vocals in the latter part of the song. He has a lot of different singing styles in this song, each of them having a certain zaniness to them that’s just so much fun to listen to. This playful sounding singing is especially interesting to listen to in the context of the largely dismal lyrics. Hearing Thom, in the most sarcastic-sounding tone I’ve ever seen him do, starting yelping “All hail to the thief, All hail to the thief!” is both pretty hilarious and, surprisingly, extremely catchy.
Putting the song structure aside, overall I’d say that 2 + 2 = 5 isn’t particularly similar to anything Radiohead has done prior. It’s unique and it’s a great song. An extremely promising opener indeed.
The album continues with Sit Down, Stand up, a rather unsettling track that continues with the dismal, Orwellian themes that 2 + 2 = 5 so wonderfully set up. The song’s atmosphere has a creepy malevolence to it, particularly when Thom starts reciting the controlling lyrics: “Sit Down, Stand up…” Thom’s tired-sounding demeanor throughout the first half of the song makes it somewhat easy to miss that Sit Down’s lyrics aren’t just controlling – they’re downright threatening (“We can wipe you out any time”). Unfortunately, Thom’s tired style of singing on this song detracts from the threatening vibe. He just isn’t nearly as unsettling or scary as the music he’s singing over is. And sonically, Sit Down doesn’t have much to offer other than continuing the thematic elements of the opener. It’s not particularly catchy. It’s kind of creepy, which makes sense in context, but as a song, it doesn’t stand particularly well on its own.
I regret to say that this isn’t the only song on the album I have this issue with.
But enough about that for now, because after Sit Down is possibly the best track on the album, Sail to the Moon. This song is absolutely amazing. The lyrics are wonderfully poetic. The piano and guitar in this song come together to give off this subtle hopelessness to it that is hauntingly beautiful. I think its placing after the first two songs honestly enhance it even more, because the gloominess of this song has fitting context. For me, this song eventually came to sound way, way sadder than I originally thought it was on my initial listen. This song may or may not be a masterpiece. Why didn’t anybody tell me about this song? This song is probably on par with Pyramid Song.
Backdrifts is catchy. But for a 5 minute long song, it’s incredibly one-dimensional. About half the time when I hear this song I enjoy it, and the other half of the time, I find it more tiring and annoying than enjoyable. After Sail to the Moon, unfortunately, this song is overall a disappointment. I don’t see how Backdrifts builds on the despair that preceded it. Besides being a moderately catchy song, this song just doesn’t have much to offer.
Go To Sleep is a relatively formidable track on the album. Other than 2 + 2 = 5, it’s the first time on the album where they return to their roots as a rock band and have the guitar chords drive much of the song. I like how Thom seems to allude to the act of resistance in this song (“Over my dead body,” “We don’t want to loonies taking over”). His singing fits well with the fact that the upbeat guitars have regained control in this song, and have found their way to front and center again.
Up through this point, this honestly is a pretty decent Radiohead album. It stays true to its themes, it has a couple bangers. It has a swing and a miss here or there, but the misses aren’t so prevalent that it’s disastrous for the experience of listening to the album.
I wish it could have stayed that way. But then we get into some of these other tracks. And it becomes apparent that the weaknesses of songs like Sit Down and Backdrifts aren’t just flukes. These weaknesses are everywhere on this album.
Where I End and You Begin is bad. The drums are quick and on point, as we can expect from a Radiohead song. But everything else on this track sounds too timid and complacent. The song is bleak, which is fitting, but it’s not bleak in a particularly rewarding or fulfilling way like Sail to the Moon is. Instead, it’s more akin to an empty shell of a song. This song reminds me of Electioneering. It’s just not good.
As the album crawls towards its second half, it becomes undeniable that the inconsistency of the song quality of this album is a major detractor.
We Suck Young Blood might be the most disappointing song of all. That isn’t to say it’s an empty shell of a song like Where I End and You Begin. On the contrary – part of it is actually amazing. I’m of course talking about the melody where they just sing “wooooo ooooooo oooooo oooo…. Woooooo ooooooo oooooo oooo….”. That segment of music is fascinating. It has a haunting feel that’s on the same caliber as the atmosphere on Sail to the Moon. This part of We Suck Young Blood is the climax of this album. Like, you know the band The Beths and how the latter half of Little Death is the climax of that album? Same thing here.
Here’s the bad part about We Suck Young Blood, though. It saddens me to say this, but the beauty of the melody I’m talking about is largely diminished by some of the rougher sounding parts that surround it. This includes Thom’s vocals, which are quite grading in this song. I love this song because it has an absolute gem of a melody in there. But unfortunately… I’m also very disappointed in this song, because it could have been so much better if they had built on the “woooowoooo” part instead of building up to it and just playing random weird garbage before it. Sigh.
And then comes The Gloaming. Here’s one thing I like about The Gloaming: in the context of the album, it has a lot of the urgency that some of the preceding songs like Backdrifts should have had, seeing as how the lyrical content is often about some pretty serious stuff. But in terms the song, it’s completely boring. The beat is mediocre and annoyingly repetitive. And hearing Thom repeatedly sing about ringing bells is about as interesting as hearing him repeat “the raindrops” ad nauseam on Sit Down. And that is to say, not particularly interesting.
The tiring repetitiveness on the lyrics of The Gloaming and Sit Down sit in stark contrast to the fantastic, hard-hitting effectiveness of 2 + 2 = 5’s repeated “paying attention” line. The difference is that the “you’re not paying attention” line is actually part of a compelling hook, and it’s amplified by Thom’s unique vocal performance.
What’s supporting or amplifying the raindrop and bell lines? Nothing much. Not enough for either of them to work, that’s for sure.
And then there’s There There. What can I even say about this song. The instrumentals sound bored. Thom sounds bored. Thom at some points almost sounds not bored, but not nearly enough of the time on this song. I don’t think I would mind this song as much if it was on The King of Limbs, because most of the songs on there are pretty chill, so a song like this wouldn’t be particularly devastating for its momentum.
But on HTTT? This song practically cements the entire album as disappointing. It’s like the final nail in the Mediocrity Coffin. The album started out with a fantastic, exciting jam, 2+2=5, and Sail to the Moon, a possible masterpiece. But at this point in the album the momentum has already deteriorated substantially. And with each additional middle of the road song, listening to it gets less and less tolerable.
What the hell is this middle stretch of the album even doing? It’s hard for me to even tell what it’s trying to do. Is it just a really long intermission and it turns out that that’s why there are so many songs? All of these songs in the middle stretch of the album, except part of We Suck Young Blood, are OK at best. This album started off with some stunning, powerful songs. But this whole other leg of the album is disturbingly middle of the road.
HTTT is obviously aiming to tackle big, scary, Orwellian topics. But musically, so many of these songs fail to contribute meaningfully to that effort. It feels so inconsistent in that way. I want to like the songs on this album, because I’m interested in the themes and I think this could have been a really powerful album. But when I give it a listen, it just doesn’t have the level of focus, quality, or consistency that I would expect from a band like Radiohead addressing such subject matter.
Do things pick up in the next song, I Will? Somewhat. It’s decent. I like how it’s a bit spooky, which I think is one mood that Radiohead actually does well on this album. I wish this served as the sole interlude of the album. not this and several other middling songs. I even think that this could have even served as a decent closer if the majority of the preceding songs weren’t so boring. But in this case, if this were the last song I’d actually be dumbfounded at how bad that hypothetical 10-song album was.
Luckily, there’s another stretch of songs.
A Punch Up At a Wedding has a toughness to it and some pretty weird lyrics, and those two things mixed actually sounds pretty interesting. I don’t know what Thom is singing about here but it sounds like some fascinating shit. For some reason, I suspect I might like this song in the future a little more than I do currently if I listen to it some more. There’s just something about its weirdness that’s intriguing. Towards the end of the song, it sounds ever so slightly off-putting. This is another trait that seems to land well in this album. For example, it happens to be the only aspect of Sit Down that’s actually pretty good.
There are multiple other traits that this album seems to be capable of expressing well. Impersonal, gloomy, cold. HTTT does all those well too. So, why then, does it seem so mediocre? Perhaps it’s because Radiohead are trying to fit so many different styles into the context of the subject matter. They want to be off-putting, haunting, impersonal, hopeless, accepting, aggressive, or sarcastic and playful. They want to be all those things but seldom any two of them at the same time. The result is a confusing mess of song styles, a few paying off beautifully but many falling very flat. At some point it finally made sense to me why it took me so many tries to listen to HTTT in its entirety – it is inconsistent to the point where it is very challenging to keep fully engaged with this album. Because every time there’s something interesting or beautiful here or there, it’s seldom built on afterwards and instead is just followed by a bad track that has a completely different feel to it.
Myxomatosis is aggressive, bass-heavy, and in-your-face. It’s yet another song that vaguely has common themes with the styles of the other songs, so it vaguely makes sense… but the song itself just completely fails to deliver. At some points it feels like Thom is almost fighting with the beat, like the beat is dragging him along and it’s emotionally exhausting for him. It reminds me of Idioteque in that regard. But it’s different from Idioteque, because unlike Idioteque, this song is absolutely hideous. The bass is way too overpowering. Myxomatosis is like a failed Frankenstein Monster version of Idioteque. I hate it. Maybe I would have liked this song if they turned it down like 1000 notches, and did something that’s not obnoxiously heavy bass when Thom’s trying to talk about his Myxomatosis.
The duds don’t stop there. There’s still Scatterbrain. Scatterbrain does at least tease some interesting and satisfying melodies. But they only last like 5 seconds and then it’s back to the same boring bullshit. In the bridge, for example, it does sound almost good. When Thom sings about not being scatterbrained, it has a promising sounding guitar melody that just… ends up going absolutely nowhere straight into some more random garbage. It’s like We Suck Young Blood, except not as disappointing. Because in this case, the “good part” is so incredibly underdeveloped that it doesn’t even give you a real chance to get your hopes up. Yeah, this is yet another song that just isn’t good.
I’m happy to say that the album ends on probably the best note it could have ended on. A Wolf At The Door is a fantastic closer. The pace of this song matches 2+2=5, where it starts off pretty slow and simple, and the real part is later in the song. Oddly enough, like on We Suck Young Blood, this is another instance where the wordless vocals are a highlight. Thom sings “ohhhhhhhwaooaaahhohhhh” in a very tense, engaging vibrato style, along with a masterfully haunting mixture of sounds. I’m not entirely sure of which instruments are used to achieve this sound, but they come together flawlessly in support of Thom’s singing.
HTTT ends gracefully – like a figure skater completely screwing up half their routine but then thankfully nailing the finishing trick.
The first leg of this album sets up HTTT to be a really solid Radiohead album. 2+2=5 is exciting, Sail to the Moon is great, and the general message of the album is clear. The lyrics are specific enough to be meaningful but still vague and poetic enough to leave gaps for your imagination to fill in.
But these positives just aren’t enough to save this album. Just because this album started off great and ended gracefully doesn’t excuse the sheer inconsistency of it overall. For an album that is apparently so thematically focused, it sounds like a mess.
There are several songs on this album that made me want to root for it and made me want to believe that it was great. But overall, I’m coming away from this album disappointed.