When I head out to purchase Hail to the Thief during my designated lunch break today– an allowance Thom Yorke would surely turn into a fatalistic, Orwellian meditation on routine and alienation– I’ll mingle with teenagers and CEOs frantic to walk out with their own copy. Because today, Radiohead are U2, Pink Floyd, and Queen– and they could have been bigger than The Beatles if the success of “Creep” hadn’t agitated an Oxford-bred guilt complex. As Yorke put it in Meeting People Is Easy: “English people aren’t impressed. There’s this automatic assumption that any degree of success means that you’ve cheated. Or you’re full of shit.”
That’s a cross Thom no longer has to bear, since whatever shit he was full of was beaten out of him– in his hometown, no less– one night in 2000. Like Johnny, the more thoroughly bloodied protagonist from Mike Leigh’s Naked, the assault lent Thom an appreciation of reality’s ominous urgency, quite possibly for the first time. Protected from street-level human misery– first by privilege, then by wit, later by celebrity– Yorke labored for years under the misguided belief that the world is tangible, that it can be changed, that any dignified person would be miserable to live here.
A mild pummelling at the hands of embittered local punters refocused this unparalleled modern songwriter on more immediate and emotionally resonant issues, stuffing him back in boots he was most certainly growing too big for.
Which is not to advocate violence, or suggest that any end could justify its employ, but there are tertiary benefits when an artist’s perspective is forcibly altered. Listen to Kid A, the most remarkably finessed redesign of an established band’s sound since U2 recorded Achtung Baby: A reaction to overexposure, the undermining effects of commodification, and the alienation of celebrity, the record hasn’t aged a day, though Amnesiac– a less inspired collection of underdeveloped tunes from the same sessions– has somewhat dulled its glimmer.
The two albums were written and recorded before Thom was attacked, before he became a father, before the world became a lot smaller, when nothing really mattered. Hail to the Thief is almost four years removed from the reality he last wrote about, and for its suspicious title and Yorke’s recent political exploits, it’s thankfully less concerned about third world debt and globalist conspiracy theories than I’d expected. Still, the record is not without its simplistic admonitions.
Hail to the Thief doesn’t dig up Britpop skeletons from The Bends, and it’s not OK Computer II, as Yorke christened it in the press. Rather, it’s a holding pattern; Yorke has confessed as much, and his excusatory remarks only underscore his chief failing: He believes radical change is the best option in all cases, and only feels pride in doing something “new” (quotes here, since Eno had ample reason to bristle at Kid A). Yorke can’t see that Hail to the Thief is nothing to apologize for, that Radiohead are a band, and that, after a fashion, bands are defined by their music. Much as U2’s Zooropa still sounded like U2, anything Radiohead does from here on out will sound like Radiohead.
The triumphant “2 + 2 = 5” could only work as the set’s opener: It’s an encompassing declaration of intent, defining the exploratory boundaries of Hail to the Thief as well as the professedly temporary return to “rocking out,” something Ed O’Brien’s been wanting to do ever since Kid A was born.
As a preface to headier analysis later in the record, Thom deals with his recent political distractions, pointing out the medieval ignorance of inaction in the face of overwhelming odds: “Are you such a dreamer/ To put the world to rights?/ I’ll stay home forever/ Where two and two always makes up five.” It’s a bit grandiose, but he rightly concedes the possible arrogance of his bravado during the tune’s neurotically charged finale, “Go and tell the king that the sky is falling in/ When it’s not/ Maybe not.”
Not as topical– perhaps even reassuringly vague– “Sit Down. Stand Up.” returns us to those old fears of impotence in the face of global forces at work, but as a new father, Thom has every right to revisit one of the great societal laments in rock history, OK Computer. Juxtaposing a dread spawned by media oversaturation with hands-over-ears denial of the rain falling outside, the track is devastating in its defeated isolation, the thoughts of a medicated droogie drooling in his cell on a Sunday afternoon, bubbling under the skin.
Though it’s compositionally identical to “2 + 2 = 5”, the darker subject matter and more sinister execution– in the form of far-off piano melodies, icy xylophone hits and throttling vocal doubling– reveal a demonic twin caught sideways in a cracked mirror.
Leading with such an excellent couplet, it’s something of a disappointment to find that those reactionary barbs about stagnation Yorke is trying to defuse are critically valid, if irrelevant to fans. “Sail to the Moon” has the serenity to survive its lamentably tired title and refrain, but for its beauty, it’s both lyrically and melodically reconstituted from better ballads past, like “Pyramid Song”, “How to Disappear Completely”, and “The Tourist”.
For fans, it’s another wondrous lullaby from Radiohead; for critics, it’s not only nothing new, it’s topically ridiculous, as Thom cautions his newborn son: “Maybe you’ll be president/ But know right from wrong/ Or in the flood/ You’ll build an Ark/ And sail us to the moon.” It’s an apocalyptic vision with all the emotional impact of Steven Spielberg’s A.I.
“Backdrifts” is the first beacon signaling that Radiohead haven’t lost touch with the experimental nature of Kid A and Amnesiac. This carefully attended piece– a boxed-in, minimal collection of sine waves, gurgling vocal delay and distorted drum machine loops– is easily overlooked on first listen; in a moment of levity, the band cuts loose with reverse-echoed piano and guitar swipes done up as scratching vinyl. “Go to Sleep”, a tightened retread of Amnesiac’s Smiths tribute “Knives Out”, drapes Morricone reverb and Perkins twang over hugely panned acoustic guitars. The tune carries through a surprisingly traditional half-time Britpop chorus as Yorke rambles through placeholder lyrics, alternating tossed-off lines like, “We don’t want the loonies taking over,” with the constant response, “Over my dead body.”
This worrisome middling leads into “Where I End and You Begin”, which is the only real low point on the album, as aside from Yorke’s vocals, it’s simply a U2 song. Shuffling snare rolls usher along an admittedly succulent liquid bassline, but these are only drawn out from their terrestrial locus by a hard-panned pair of keyboard tracks, which, for their simplicity, rescue an otherwise unsalvageable track. The finale is more intriguing, with its raspy whispers and excellent melodic interplay, but for the most part, this is chaos stacked high to mask creative nudity underneath.
“We Suck Young Blood” returns to the piano mode the band has explored increasingly since Kid A, a sort of drunken New Orleans death dirge that embodies its vampiric title, creeping along at a measured, sickly pace punctuated only by languid, distanced handclaps. The approach pays off hugely, as Yorke’s gorgeous, metallic whinny embraces the stumbling progression with harmony after harmony, and moments of depressed, gentle wistfulness.
Along with “Backdrifts”, “The Gloaming” exposes the band’s potential future. Simple, looping glitches and obstinate digital blurts dash all expectations, remaining resolutely compact, borrowing huge synthetic reverb plates such that Yorke can sing over his own voice. It’s arguably academic in its basic composition– a theoretical dare– but “The Gloaming” is one of few risks on this relatively sociable record, a wink to the more studious members of their audience.
Which is where the advance single “There There” picks up, embodying the unification of Radiohead’s recently mixed aims. Jonny wants to play with analog synths, Ed and Colin want to bash guitars, Thom wants to change music forever, and they finally meet up in this terrifically strange, yet structurally straightforward anthem. “There There” builds on more universal lyrics, soaring harmonies and a thundering crescendo the band wisely trimmed from its concert length (it originally began after Yorke’s midpoint scream). Yorke said he wept uncontrollably when he heard the first mix of it, and the unmastered MP3s of Hail to the Thief which leaked in March support his professed reaction: Unlike the rest of the album, “There There” is essentially unchanged.
Possibly even more inspiring (and enduring) are “Myxomatosis” and “A Wolf at the Door”, two of the last tracks on the album. The former is a buzzing prog redux of OK Computer’s “Airbag” that shows how the simplicity Radiohead strive for can work wonders with tempo; drums fall all over the track until Thom winds up a layered, head-spinning (intoxicated?) verse that spills the rhythm onto the floor. It’s a dizzying stereo-panned stomp, and one of Hail to the Thief’s finest moments.
As usual, Radiohead save a masterstroke for the closing slot: “A Wolf at the Door” continues in the peculiarly Slavic jazz-blues mode first explored in Amnesiac’s Russo-Bayou parlor waltz “Life in a Glasshouse”. But “A Wolf at the Door” is more thorough, refined and consequently potent– almost slick– in comparison with its drunken, ephemeral predecessor. It’s here, at the end of things, that Yorke most openly deals with the impact of his physical assault three years ago and his still-maddening fears of role-playing traps in society and relationships (nicely summarized in a quick nod to Bryan Forbes’ terrifying The Stepford Wives). Evil is out there– he’s suffered its wrath– and like a terrified Chechnyan matriarch, he relies on tangible protection from the fuckers and future come to ransom his child.
For its moments of gravity and excellence, Hail to the Thief is an arrow, pointing toward the clearly darker, more frenetic territory the band have up to now only poked at curiously. Experimentation fueled the creativity that gave us Kid A and Amnesiac, but that’s old hat to Radiohead, who are trying– and largely succeeding– in their efforts to shape pop music into as boundless and possible a medium as it should be. Without succumbing to dilettantism, they continue to absorb and refract simpler posits from the underground, ideas that are usually satisfied to wallow in their mere novelty.
The syncretic mania of Radiohead continues unabated, and though Hail to the Thief will likely fade into their catalog as a slight placeholder once their promissory transformation is complete, most of us will long cherish the view from this bridge.