Album Review by Adam Foster
When OK COMPUTER came out, the critics were confused. When KID A came out, it got panned. AMNESIAC was greeted with further distress. All three, of course, are now rightly considered modern classics. Personally, it took me two years to grow to love KID A.
So, when approaching a review of the new Radiohead album HAIL TO THE THIEF you start to feel that any faults may be more yours than theirs. You don’t want to be remembered as the bloke who wrote “Mostly pants” when, in the next millennium, HAIL TO THE THIEF is regarded as the pinnacle of 21 st century music.
The fact is, though, that some of the fourteen songs here are simply not as strong as those on previous albums. Below this review is a detailed breakdown of each track. But to summarise: it’s a bit of a soggy Yorkshire pudding. It is strong around the edges – the opening tracks, 2+2=5 and SIT DOWN, STAND UP, are splendid, and, at the close, MYXAMATOSIS and A WOLF AT THE DOOR are tremendous – but it doesn’t half sag in the middle.
This may be as a result of the working method. Where OK COMPUTER, KID A and AMNESIAC all took months to complete, HAIL TO THE THIEF was recorded over a couple of weeks; essentially, at the rate of a track a day. While this adds considerably to the sense of freedom – there are gaps in this record you could drive a coach through – the time spent on recent albums has allowed them time to find the hidden riches within songs. I have no doubt that some of the slower songs here (particularly SAIL TO THE MOON and WE SUCK YOUNG BLOOD) could have gained from the attention to detail that benefited, say, LIKE SPINNING PLATES on AMNESIAC.
Nonetheless, much of this album is a liberating experience. If you enjoyed the single (THERE THERE), you will find a good deal to entertain you here. Like THERE THERE, many of the best tracks on this album wander around for a bit, before finding great drive and direction in the closing minutes. At these times, the album thrills. But you can’t help feeling it could have lost a few tracks without harm.
It might not be vintage Radiohead, then – only time will tell – but it is certainly better than almost anything else on the market at the moment.
2+2=5. Starts pleasantly enough, with a citrus-sweet tune sung in Yorke’s keening voice; then, after about a minute, the band open their shoulders and blow the song into a tremendous, no-holds-barred rant the like of which we’ve not heard on a studio Radiohead album since “The Bends”. Excellent opener, although it perhaps overpromises a change of direction which never fully materialises. 9/10
SIT DOWN. STAND UP. A similar pattern to track one, although perhaps more in the vein of EVERYTHING IN ITS RIGHT PLACE. Slow start, repetitive lyrics (the four minutes of the song contain 20 words: the last two minutes consisting almost entirely of the words “the raindrops” repeated over and again to a driving, frenetic backing. But it works. 9/10.
SAIL TO THE MOON. A reminder that Radiohead have always been able to turn an affecting ballad; this time, a paean to fatherhood, but touching and rough around the edges. The guitar sounds rather uncomfortably Fleetwood Mac, but nonetheless, a haunting song. 7/10
BACKDRIFTS. Return to “Amnesiac” territory, only with a tune. Unfortunately, the tune is not very memorable, and the whole song feels a bit thin. 6/10
GO TO SLEEP. Strangely attractive confection. If ever was such a thing as prog-folk in the 70s, this is what it should have sounded like. Yorke’s voice, strong and less whinging, glides effortlessly with bassline over O’Brien’s guitar. When he gets to the line “We don’t want the loonies taking over,” it is not difficult to picture Yorke with his finger in his ear, waiting for the hurdy-gurdy to cut in. 7/10
WHERE I END AND YOU BEGIN. Otherwise known as “where the rot sets in”. The track comes in all funky, Colin Greenwood’s bass and Selway’s drums creating an understated dance ambience. But the song itself is entirely forgettable, impossible to recall (other than the closing “I will eat you all alive” refrain) even moments after it ended. 5/10
WE SUCK YOUNG BLOOD. Should be so much better that it is. This is a not-too distant relation to LIFE IN A GLASSHOUSE from “Amnesiac” – a New Orleans-style funeral dirge with a simple, rich, piano backing and ragged slow handclapping for percussion. But it lacks GLASSHOUSE’s rich use of brass, and disappoints after about three minutes by threatening to take off (a la 2+2=5) before losing heart again. Feels like a missed opportunity. 6/10.
THE GLOAMING. Electronic heartbeat, and semi-spoken lyric make the opening of this oddly reminiscent of Audio Bullys. At least to me. But this track would have held its own on “Amnesiac”; quietly understated, but insistent, it builds nicely before fading to the heartbeat that began it all, and leaves you wanting more. 7/10.
THERE THERE. The single, which sounded pretty weedy on the radio, sounds muscular and purposeful in this company. Its double-tracked drums and Greenwood’s bass give substance to its meandering start. And when the whole thing kicks into gear, after a full four minutes, Radiohead suddenly make complete sense again. And it heralds an excellent closing section. 9/10.
I WILL. Why this works so much better than the previous slow tracks on this album is one of those mysteries of music. A beautiful and affecting ballad, with Yorke’s bruised voice double-tracked to a counter-pointing falsetto, it’s a wonderful moment. And at just under 2 minutes long, perfectly judged. 10/10.
A PUNCHUP AT A WEDDING. Colin Greenwood comes in with a laid-back bass-line (à la COME TOGETHER), Philip Selway shuffles in with some gentle snare, Yorke lifts the lid on some Brubeck-cool piano, and we are in strange territory for these boys. But the song grows on you with each listen, and could well become a Radiohead classic – despite its atypical subject matter. 9/10
MYXAMATOSIS. Very rum indeed. The synth kicks in as if Deep Purple had joined the Human League, and Yorke sings in a voice that would not have disgraced Jimmy Dean at his misunderstood best about how people were “cheering and waving / cheering and waving / twitching and salivating/ like with myxamatosis” But a track that stays with you for some time afterwards. 9/10
SCATTERBRAIN. A return to form of the classic Radiohead closing track (as in STREET SPIRIT from “The Bends” or THE TOURIST from “OK Computer”). Yorke’s pining vocal over a simple and gentle guitar setting. Also, unfortunately, a bit of a return to the flat middle section of the album. The trick is, it ain’t the closer. 7/10
A WOLF AT THE DOOR. Now, who’d have expected this? The backing track – mesmeric guitar and gliding synths – is reminiscent of The Stranglers circa STRANGE LITTLE GIRL. The verses, rapped in that peculiarly English way, sound a lot like Underworld (think “Lager, lager, lager” as the vocalist here says “Dance you fucker, dance you fucker”). And the choruses are reminiscent of nothing less than the late, great, Billy Mackenzie (of Party Fears 2 fame). And yet, it remains distinctly Radiohead. A masterstroke, just to show you who is in charge around here. 10/10