Your ears are the test subjects, Radiohead are the mad scientists and Hail to the Thief is a morally questionable experiment for the betterment of mankind.
Radiohead loves to experiment. They do it with electronics back in OK Computer and in the distribution of recently released, In Rainbows. When they experiment, they seem to do it with no objective other than the sake of experimenting—or, at least, no objective we can see. If I had to find the experiment objective in Hail to the Thief, it would have to be the opening of a strange new frame of mind.
At the start, it's everything associated with Radiohead. '2 + 2 = 5. (The Lukewarm)' has got Thom York's mournful singing, Johnny Greenwood's rhapsodic guitar riffs, electronic drums, computer modulating, and slurred Orwellian lyrics. It begins with a dreamy lethargy that abruptly wakes into a frenzy and ends with thump, priming you to get ready to lead a socialist revolution, or overthrow capitalism, or listen to a really great album. The next track, 'Sit down. Stand up. (Snakes and Ladders)' drops back down but slowly rises again—into a nightmare hell of piano and electronic storm. 'Sail to the Moon (Brush the Cobwebs out of the Sky)' is an even bigger mood whiplash, as a discordant lullaby sung by Yorke. It's written for his son, but just try to imagine what kind of adult one would become after listening to this as a baby. 'Backdrifts (Honeymoon is Over)' is a mystifying mass of ambient sounds and babble that isn't worth trying to unravel. Thankfully, the doldrums are broken when the guitar returns in 'Go to Sleep (Little Man being Erased)', but beyond this point, you can follow the title's instructions. It doesn't get better, but it does get stranger.
The band's lyrical profundity isn't always balanced with the music's profundity. Apart from '2 + 2 = 5. (The Lukewarm)', with the winsome opening "Are you such a dreamer / To put the world to right?", the songs have climatic composition and blah lyrics, or metaphysical lyrics and bland composition. The best example of this is 'Myxomatosis. (Judge, Jury & Executioner)', with lines such as "Cheering and waving / Twitching and salivating like with myxomatosis / But it got edited, fucked up / Strangled, beaten up", which could be about the Chinese Whispers game the press plays with celebrities or feral diseases, with a background of feverish buzzing guitars. The unbalanced lyrics and music means that one won't overwhelm the other, but it shouldn't be that much trouble to compose a way to showcase both.
There aren't any really memorable moments in the music or lyrics, compared to OK Computer. There isn't as much variation either, as all of the tracks have an ambient sound that can create a hypnotised stupor. Some tracks make something new, such as 'A Punchup at a Wedding. (No no no no no no no no)', which is a re-enactment of a cringe-inducing family quarrel with a bass and piano playing deep despair. Some make something that could've been missed, such as 'The Gloaming. (Softly Open our Mouths in the Cold)', which is a bunch of electronic tricks blended together to lumpy mix. As experiments go, this is of 'nominal interest.'
Upside: If you listen for the weirdness, you will never be bored. I have a scratched copy of the disc, and can't tell what's a glitch and what's deliberate.
Downside: If you listen for quality, you will find yourself asleep midway through.
Best Lyrics: "Oh, hail to the thief / But I'm not / Don't question my authority or put me in the dock / Because I'm not / Oh, go and tell the king that the sky is falling in / But it's not / Maybe not"
Sounds Like: A fever hallucination, Yume Nikki
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