Radiohead Weekend: First Impressions – Hail to the Thief

Last one here, and as we found out yesterday, I will keep buying Radiohead albums as long as they make good ones. I was never particularly enamoured with Pablo Honey, but The Bends, OK Computer and In Rainbows are among my favourite ever records. At the persuasion of The Internet, I’ve been forced at gunpoint to listen to the three Radiohead albums I didn’t have the patience with before, so here I am – for the last time – with Hail to the Thief.

2 + 2 = 5 opens strongly, but tapers rather than builds towards the centre. The explosion of sound in the second half sounds oddly muted – more of the vague angst of Pablo Honey than the middle class rage of The Bends. It’s almost punky, but without the energy.

By the time Sit Down Stand Up kicks in, I’ve worked out why I’m just not getting on with these albums. Let’s pause a moment to reflect on the good albums, and take the opening tracks:

Planet Telex (The Bends)
Airbag (OK Computer)
15 Step (In Rainbows)
Bloom (King of Limbs)

They’re really powerful, attention-grabbing openers that set the tone for the rest of it. There’s no buggering about: it just grabs you by the throat with a memorable track and then keeps up the momentum. Weak opener, weak album.

That said, when it finally gets going – subdued track after subdued track – Sit Down Stand Up has a great groove. It would be better suited as the last or penultimate track, especially since it only gets going in the last minute.

Sail to the Moon is another slow, mournful ballad. So let’s take the tally here: a downbeat, subdued track followed by a downbeat, subdued track that turns into something decent in the last minute, followed by another downbeat, subdued track – this time on the piano. There’s just no light and shade here – it’s all one mood.

Backdrifts is finally a bit more upbeat, following the electro style the band have favoured of late. It isn’t anywhere as near as good as similar tracks on other albums.

Go To Sleep is the first track I’ve heard so far and thought “this is a good song”. It’s a rock song with interesting chord progressions, a bit of energy behind it, and intriguing textures and vocal style. Even so, once it’s established itself, it fades out rather than adhering to the carefully laid-out, winning structures they used on The Bends.

Where I End and You Begin has another of those shuffling beats that reminds me a bit of old Baggy songs from 1990. It also sounds a bit like Joy Division. It’s still … gaaaah! It sets up what it’s going to do and then it doesn’t do anything with that sound! STOP IT! STOP IT! STOP IT!

I swear if I hear one more f***ing piano ballad I am going to SHOOT THEM IN THE HEAD! We Suck Young Blood is … another f***ing mournful f***ing downbeat f***ing directionless mess of a singer in love with the sound of his own f***ing voice with no f***ing songs to f***ing sing. Oh, it all goes a bit nuts for about 10 seconds in the middle – enough to jolt me out of my stupor – before laxing back into aforementioned lazy f***ing mess. Perhaps they should have just called the song We Suck.

The Gloaming – it really is exactly like they’ve forgotten how to write songs.

Ah, There, There sounds immediately like they’ve remembered it. Maybe at the prompting of their record company or something. It’s a cool gothic rock number that Joy Division or The Cure could have sung. Against the context of the other, s***ier songs on the album, this suddenly sounds a whole lot better.

Apparently the short length of each song on this album was inspired by The Beatles. I don’t recall that the Beatles filled the albums full of endless, identikit mournful ballads like I Will, because if they had, nobody would have bought their records.

A Punchup at a Wedding is the third acceptable track and the second genuinely strong track on this album. It’s a piano-based, funky song that stands out for its style, energy, and by actually being any good.

Myxomatosis is again vibrant and energetic. Why are they suddenly doing this now in the second half of the album? It’s a distorted bass noise with a syncopated beat over the top and could actually pass for a proper song. I want to like this but though it’s grabbing my attention, it’s not swaying me emotionally.

Scatterbrain makes me think that there was some kind of deal where the only songs Thom gets paid for are the slow, mournful ballads. Maybe it’s just that if you write slower songs you can write fewer lyrics and play fewer notes? Move along, folks: nothing to see here.

A Wolf at the Door is … GAAAH! I’VE RUN OUT OF WILL TO LIVE! At least he’s singing low for this slow, mournful ballad instead of the LOOK HOW MUCH I CAN SING caterwauling on the rest of the album.

OK, Radiohead, it’s clear that you’re just not getting what I want from an album. You write great songs – but only when you stick to traditional songwriting structures. You can keep the bleepy s***, keep the samples, keep the weird instruments and difficult rhythms, but FOR F***’S SAKE write a decent bloody song once in a while? I mean, can you even DO that any more? I don’t ask for much: just songs that do more than establish a single sound and roll with it for four minutes, and a variety of those songs in an album, covering a different range of moods and styles. Hell, you can even keep the slow, mournful ballads provided that they use interesting layers and textures and vocal delivery.

Radiohead: Oh, you mean like this?

15 Step
Bodysnatchers
Nude
Weird Fishes/Arpeggi
All I Need
Faust Arp
Reckoner
House of Cards
Jigsaw Falling Into Place
Videotape

Yes. Yes, that’s EXACTLY what I meant. Thank you.

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