Hail to the Thief - New Radiohead Album Review

A few weeks ago I was wondering what was going on in the world of my favourite still-together band, Radiohead, and so I checked their web site.

Prolific lads that they are, I saw that they were cooking up yet another new album. Sweet.

I read an entry by the band about how someone leaked an early version of the album to the internet, and that they hoped people wouldn't download it, and to understand that it's not finished yet and that we wouldn't be hearing the final album.

Uh-huh. So I of course immediately fired up my Gnutella client and downloaded the album in its entirety in less than a half an hour.

I don't feel the least bit guilty. This may be the only CD I buy this year.

I've been listening to this now every day for about two weeks and while I wasn't sure about it at first as I've gotten to live with the album for awhile it's really grown on me. So much so that I feel the need to post an early review.

So below is my review of the early-release rough-cut of the new Radiohead Album, Hail to the Thief.

01 2+2=5
With a bit of static, the album opens slowly with a ticking metronome beat and a droned chorus, until about a minute and a half in when it breaks down into a nice guitar part and vocals that sound almost like liturgical music before breaking into an uptempo heavy guitar and synth parts that would be at home on their masterpiece OK Computer.

The lyrics do have the dubious distinction of including the title of the album amongst their lines.

02 sit down, stand up
The second track slows things down again with a gentle synth, piano, and... is that xylophone?

The lyrics are probably the simplest on this track:

sit down, stand up
walk into the jaws of hell
we can wipe you out anytime

oh the rain drops

Someone on ateaseweb.com, who transcribed the lyrics, says that "oh the rain drops" is repeated 46 times at the end of the song. That sounds about right. This phrase is repeated as the rest of the orchestration goes from lush to chaotic (but not in a stupid, careless way - this is scripted chaos - carefully planned).

Not a bad track - the opening section/movement of this song is superiour to the final chaotic and harder-edged section.

03 sail to the moon
There is a LOT of piano/keyboard on this album, and track 03 continues with the "start slowly then build to a big loud finish" formula of the first two tracks.

Except that "sail to the moon" never explodes - nor does it have a "B section" - it remains the same tempo and doesn't deviate much throughout the track, which makes its 4:28 running time a little monotonous. It's a pretty song - I'm just hoping that in the time between this early version and the finished album they come up with something more to do with it.

Of all of the tracks, this one is the most un-finished (not production-value-wise, but composition-wise).

04 backdrifts
And now for something that would fit right in on Kid A or Amnesiac.

This isn't exactly a dance number, but it has a groovalicious beat but again it's 5:31 of the same thing. This song would be twice as strong by being half as long.

05 go to sleep
The song which most resembles a rock song, "Go to Sleep" is one of my early favourites. It has the best line on the album on it: "We don't want the loonies taking over."


I predict this would be a hit single if they release it. It's got a great driving beat in the verses, and the half-tempo chorus is perfect, simple, efficient.

06 where i end and you begin
This is an easy favourite. It's another up-tempo number with some of the best guitar work on the album. Musically, this is Radiohead's finest hour.

It grinds to an end with singer York snarling "I will eat you alive." I believe him. Good stuff.

07 we suck young blood
This is the "Fitter, Happier" of HTTT. It's an immediate skip track - I can't see gaining anything from listening to this piece of obvious filler more than once. Maybe it won't be on the final album. I hope not.

It has a shuffling piano and hand claps (I kid you not) for percussion. It's close to comedy. And the lyrics are childish and insipid.

It speaks well of Hail to the Thief that there's only one expendable track (well, maybe two - see below).

Still, the album would have been better without it. It's a dirge, which right away turns me off, but it's not inventive or dynamic enough to warrant more than ten seconds.

08 the gloaming
"The Gloaming" may double as the second filler track on the album - it's hard to tell yet. It's not a bad song, but it's flat and simple. Maybe it'll grow on me.

09 there there
The first single, again Radiohead choose the least likely track to make their first single (their last album's first single was Amnesiac's "Pyramid Song," which is as avant-garde as Radiohead get - it's a great piece of music, but I can't imagine it helped sell any albums.

This track will fair a little better, I think. It's long, though, so I'd like to hear the radio edit. The second half of the song sounds more "commercial" than the slower first half.

10 i will
A slow, soulful number with chorus-like vocals a la the end of "Paranoid Android" from OK Computer.

At a brisk 2:24, it's the perfect length. Several of the other songs would benefit from the same brevity.

11 a punch-up at the wedding
This is one of those tracks that people are either going to love or hate. One early review listed this as the best they've ever done. I don't think that's true, but it's a solid track.

It's got a nice relaxed bass line, more keyboards, and keeps the same lazy tempo for most of the song. The melding of technology and old-fashioned human playing is a perfect match on this track.

12 myxomatosis
The most re-playable on the album, "Myxomatosis" (a rare disease that affects rabbits - it's also a Philip Larkin poem).

This is the hardest edged song Radiohead's done in several albums, with a grinding electric beat, it's instantly infectious, just like the rabbit disease.

Good stuff.

13 scatterbrain
I really disliked this song when I first heard it and it's since grown on me considerably.

It's another soft song, with complex guitar work and gentle synth. It's the "No Surprises" of the album.

14 a wolf at the door
This is the best song on the album - the beat and the lyrics trip all over each other - it's a mess in progress, waiting to fall, crashing in on itself before it recovers into a difficult to sing chorus that pulls everything back together again before it almost falls apart.

Don't ask me what the lyrics mean.

The guitar and strings sound like a lullaby. Instead of ending on a big orchestrated lush explosion like the previous four albums have, this one ends on a quiet but fascinating note.

It's the only track that's unlike anything that's appeared on previous albums, and I hope it represents the future of what we can expect from Radiohead, who've really refined the weird avant-garde rock thing now, but have plateaued a bit with this album.

My hope is that the songs that I really like don't change at all, and the songs that I thought could use some improvement change for the better.

I'm sure this will be one of the few things that I listen to over and over and over again for the next couple of months - but if the songs change (and many will, probably) I just hope I don't ruin the album versions for myself by not liking them as much as the earlier version simply because they're different.

Hail to the Thief hits stores 10 June 2003 and is available for preorder on Amazon.com.