This is one of my favourite songs of all time and why I get disappointed when people say this song is too ‘difficult” or succeeds too much in its own goal or too uncomfortable to listen to.
I guess the reason why I like this goes back to one of the conflicts of ideology between Listenability and Emotional Resonance.
I’ll just define those two terms by the way I interpret it. The subjective component of listenability subjectively is whether you feel the song is catchy and the song is cohesive. The objective component of listenability it is whether the song follows traditional conventions of songwriting. Emotional resonance subjectively is whether you feel emotionally moved by the song but the objective component is the sincerity of the songwriter (or how good at acting is the performer) and whether the song attempts to capture a deep emotional state.
Usually those two category have a synergistic relationship because it’s based on happy = major scales, sad = minor scales and if you follow the western convention of song you could still create emotionally resonant music within the context of those emotions.
However what happens when a person tries to create an eerie, disturbing or violent or mentally unstable atmosphere. The idea of writing music following the traditional western conventions of songwriting where it sounds natural and everything fits together in a cohesive manner is in direct conflict to listenability So how do we resolve this conflict?
Well artist like Nick Cave, Kate Bush, PJ Harvey, Bjork, Can (by the way I love all of those artist) etc they try to deliberately sound ugly and break songwriting conventions. Some will add dissonance to the song, some will start screaming or start emulating a donkey, go on an angry vengeful rant, some will completely abandon cohesive structure in the song (I’m thinking of Peking O and Aumgm) etc. Of course they don’t completely go to the extreme and they mix those moments with conventional hooks and melodies but in the end it’s a compromise between listenability and emotional resonance. Those artist walk a tight line sacrificing elements of music that is pleasant to listen to with elements that accurately reflects the emotions of the song.
So the reason why I single out Climbing Up The Wall is because in my opinion judging the core elements of the song. There is no compromise.
IF you look at the song from an objective standpoint, this is a conventional minor key ballad. The chords of the song follow the conventional chords “allowed” in pop songwriting (the chords I, IV, V and the relative minor/major of those three chords are the 6 chords that summarise 95% of pop music), The chord progression of the song (Bm (I), G (IV of relative major), Em (IV), G. The chorus is just Em and G. So the chord proression is perfectly natural. Also the melodies, there is no dissonance. Thom Yorke perfectly sings within the key of the song and majority of the lead instruments and the tuned effects there is no dissonance either. There’s only one note in the entire song which was during the synth line in the instrumental break where they played an F over a Bm chord which is a tritone (the devil interval) and even then that tritone resolves the next note as the F becomes an F# (perfect 5th). However apart from that one note during that progression (and really it’s an effective used of dissonance but it’s hardly essential to the song and hardly anyone I heard criticising that song points out to the synth solo as a problem). This is a perfectly normal, conventional minor key ballad (although I haven’t looked at the score using this judgement but I’m listening to it by ear and I detect no dissonance but if missed out any, someone can point it out). Apart from that one note, this song is objectively listenable (whether someone finds it enjoyable to listen to is subjective as I admit listenablity as it subjective component as well) How they achieved the eerie atmosphere is by the production, the effects and the sound of the instruments and the sound of Thom Yorke’s voice.
To show how conventional the melodies is, have a listen to Powderfinger's My Happiness which in my opinion rips off the melody from Radiohead and yet this is essentially a pop song. The idea that this melody can be transform to have an eerie effect is genius in my opinion.
I guess I appreciate this song in the same way George Starostin appreciated Eight Miles High where he commented that Eight Miles High was “just about any other harmony-ruled, jangle-powered pop anthem on the 1965 albums. You could take away the atmosphere, change the lyrics to something more socially conscious and give it to Pete Seeger”. Well with Climbing Up The walls. without the atmosphere and the creepy lyrics, it’s just another minor key ballad that anyone can sing along to. Stripping this song to its core element and it’s just a well written pop song (a broad definition of pop perhaps) and you can do a acoustic cover of this song and it’ll still work. This song demonstrated that Radiohead understood that atmosphere, emotional resonance is not contradictory to solid melodies and making the song listenable.
That’s why I kind of get disappointed when people say this is a weak song and its too difficult to listen to. I can understand if someone says this song is too poppy and doesn’t go far enough but I don’t get the opposite perspective that this song is too unpleasant. To me it achieves the perfect balance. The core song is listenable whilst the atmosphere is given free reign to suit the emotions of the song
Of course someone can point out other songs that does the same thing (I can’t think of any in the top of my head) and please show me some examples of other songs that achieved the creepy atmosphere without compromising listenability however even if other songs achieved it before Radiohead, I will say that from a personal perspective this song was the first song that I heard that taught me that lesson.