Review Summary: There's glitching, there's subversion, and then there's just awkward.
There’s a mix of stylistic preferences regarding reviews on this site. I personally favour longer, thoroughly analytical reviews that privilege technical analysis, duality of macro and micro perspective and a near-impersonal, academic tone, as epitomised by the emeritus Nick Greer. The more popular style is reflected in writers like SowingSeason and Channing Freeman, who tend towards more concise, digestible overviews steered often explicitly (and eloquently) by personal attitudes and experience. This approach is taken further by writers such as Xenophanes, who shoot from the hip with no-nonsense breakdowns of their reactions in sharply-arranged rhetoric, and is mediated by perhaps the safest models for writing, Trey Spencer and Voivod, who present snappy yet expansive analysis in accessible prose.
All have their merits, which can be contested ad infinitum, but I think we can all agree that the track-by-track style of reviewing would come out at the bottom almost every single time if thorough comparisons were to be attempted for whatever reason. The basis for this is simple enough: the style risks treating the album as a composite and overlooks recurring or overarching dimensions that are often most important when it comes to atmosphere and character, whilst its simplicity renders it dangerously attractive to inexperienced writers looking for an easy place to start. That’s not to discourage early reviewing attempts – I started out with a track-by-track myself (and barely regret it) – but all the same, it rarely leads to strong writing.
But is there any redeeming the style? Could there ever be a time at which resorting to a reductionist assessment of the individual parts of an album actually presented the best way of getting under its skin? It’s often necessary to draw on elements of it, particularly in the case of diverse, experimental albums that mix genres and change radically between tracks, but even these tend to follow traceable patterns of composition that lend themselves to more refined writing styles – the most eclectic albums by artists like Toby Driver and John Zorn can still be treated as integral unities. What if there was an album - I shudder to think of writing ‘multiple albums’, but fortunately that is beyond the scope of this review - an album so disjointed, so crudely or unnaturally amalgamated from its tracklist that it almost required a track-by-track breakdown?
Spoilers: Radiohead did it in Hail to the Thief. It wasn’t their first time either – few would disagree that Amnesiac was disorientatingly eclectic throughout and lacked a sense of coherent progression. I challenge anyone seriously inclined to contest this with providing a defense of the opening sequencing: estranged non-opener Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box
is anything but the indicator of a collection of accompanying music, the graceful Pyramid Song
sounds like the distressing focal point of an album never made and as such comes across as highly premature, not to mention having its tragic value vastly compounded by the glorious car crash of a transition into Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors
. However, Amnesiac was also strong enough as a composite for this to be considered a quirk at worst and a show of contrary flair at best. Its tracklist was either broken or deliberately subversive; both played into its charm. Hail to the Thief is a whole different story.
Essentially, what we are dealing with here is a transitional album that emerges from the pseudo-electronic gloom of Kid A and reaches out to more prominent live instrumentation while fiercely holding onto the band’s now-established bold textural experimentation. Fair enough. Unfortunately, it also pastes the surely deliberately dysfunctional diversity of Amnesiac over a tracklist split between songs either too unadventurous to benefit from such contrast, too vague to utilise it effectively, or (more occasionally) too strong to avoid vastly overshadowing the tracks they’re juxtaposed against.
Take the much-needed late highlight There There
, a great exhibit of everything Radiohead do right: atmospheric texture is brought to the forefront and developed seamlessly over the course of the song alongside strong dynamic variety, Thom Yorke delivers relatably bleak lyrics in his compellingly slurred manner, great momentum and rhythm are employed to the effect that the song is oddly hooky without ever leaving its mid-paced comfort zone. It’s beautiful and strange and works wonders, but it also puts the adjacent tracks to shame: The Gloaming
is an unforgivably grating glitchfest of bleakness that makes Pulk/Pull
sound like catchy, relistenable gold, and I Will
is a bland miniballad in which Thom Yorke finally descends beyond the point of gloomy self-parody. Whilst I will give I Will
(hehe) some credit for being texturally cohesive with There There
, the disparity of quality between the three tracks is disconcertingly evident and the transition between The Gloaming
and There There
is neither coherent nor interesting.
Another good example is Scatterbrain
, which resists all my repeated efforts to identify any quality of dynamic, melodic, lyrical or structural flair. The song is flat-out mediocre it itself, but it is also guilty of dropping all the fuzzy infectiousness gradually generated by previous song Myxomatosis
and framing the closer A Wolf at the Door
as a merciful final highlight to put the album out of its misery rather than a satisfying finale.
The hard truth is that Hail to the Thief is a collection of fourteen tracks, of which four are excellent, three are pretty strong, three are average and four are various shades of awful, which adds to this already apparent inconsistently by blending styles crudely, failing to hit on a defining atmosphere beyond incontinuity itself. When Amnesiac did this, it sounded like a warped combination of interesting sounds. On this album it sounds like a baffling pitch at three to four different atmospheres, most of which are unsuccessful. In fairness, the excellent tracks are evenly spaced, but this just leads to a feeling of even greater patchiness.
In any case, I am aware that the bulk of this review has been spent tearing the album to shreds and justifying its suitability for an equally disjointed review style without actually going through all fourteen tracks in order (with scores, just so you can see how inconsistent it is) as it supposedly deserves, so I’ll put my judgement into practice:
2 + 2 = 5: One of Radiohead’s better rock tracks. It signals a clear departure from the Kid A/Amnesiac opener, is paced in an appropriately engaging manner for an album opener and features some intriguingly integrated time signature play. 4/5
Sit Down. Stand Up.: The polar opposite of the previous song, in a way that inspires a glum “oh.” followed by a glaringly apparent sense of lost momentum. This glitchy package of beats and nonsensical lyrics takes everything good about the last two albums and makes you forget why you ever liked it. At least the crescendo allows for effective, if predictable, dynamic exploration. 2/5
Sail to the Moon: A ballad! This track is gorgeous and shows Radiohead at their gloomily captivating best. Perhaps it might have been more adventurous, and it sounds a little overstated compared to the similar, more subtle songs that In Rainbows would later offer, but this is a hidden gem of their discography. 4.5/5
Backdrifts: A forgettable mid-paced shuffle that gets lost in its own groove and plays for far too long. Thom Yorke starts out sounding near-energetic and ends up seeming tired; given that this is quite a strong vocal performance in general, the tedium of the music is clearly strong enough to undermine him. At least it feels like a sensible change of pace after Sail to the Moon, even if it’s an awkward textural shift. 3/5
Go to Sleep: Dreary guitar rock that sounds lyrically, structurally, melodically and performatively as though they’re barely trying at this point. Jonny Greenwood almost redeems it with some ballistic effects at the end. 2.5/5
Where I End and You Begin: A great example of an archetypical Radiohead song. The strange effects, off-kilter guitar chords, brooding atmospheres and rising dynamics that are scattered all over this album come together splendidly. The structure is mixed up just enough to bewilder without losing its fluidity and the result is excellent. 4/5
I would carry on, but at this stage the patchiness of the album should be apparent and my point is made: just as the track-by-track structure is clearly insufficient to redeem Hail to the Thief, and Hail to the Thief is clearly insufficient to redeem the track-by-track structure, both can be written off as tedious stepping stones that lead to better things. When people rave about In Rainbows and extol it as an unexpected late career highlight, they’re charmingly, regrettably, absolutely wrong. It wasn’t unexpected, it was Radiohead’s dialectical antithesis offered up as much-needed compensation for this tiresome non-starter of an album.