Radiohead – Hail to the Thief

Hail to the Thief

Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief has been out now since June. Personally, I’ve had my-what’s the polite word?- illegal bootleg copy since April. By now, we’ve all had a little time to let it sink in and engage in all of those interminable “Where Does This One Rank?” conversations with our music-geek friends (well, I know I have), in which there’s always one in the crowd bemoaning the fact that they’ll never remake The Bends, and then there’s always two people going back and forth on the heated issue, “Is Kid A slightly better than Amnesiac, or is Amnesiac slightly better than Kid A?” Riveting.
Thief should therefore provide some welcome gasoline for those dying embers of debate. It’s certainly another challenging record, though probably more “accessible” than the last two, whatever that means. It’s also an “important” album-at least in the pretentious rock critic sense of the word-in that it will be the first of what I’ll call the Backlash Albums. Meaning this: At this point, Radiohead has already long since been proclaimed the great savior of rock music. That happened with the release of OK Computer, which launched them straight into the next galaxy beyond their 90’s English rock contemporaries (Blur, Oasis, etc.) and from which they haven’t looked back. But the thing about heroes and saviors (in the world of pop music, anyway) is that people get tired of them, especially pretentious people who can’t stand to like the same band as that frat guy at the other end of the bar wearing the narrow-horizontal-striped Polo shirt. But I digress. At this point, you’re starting to see a legion of “fans” waiting to hate or at least ignore whatever the band releases until drummers start to quit and they turn into R.E.M. It’s sad, really. It would be nice if we could all just shut up and listen to the album for its own merits. Hey! What a good idea; I think that’s exactly what I’ll do right now!
For starters, Hail to the Thief is a very good record. There are problems, but anyone who tells you to just forget about picking it up (as people had told me) is not to be trusted. Thief loses none of the daring and experimentation of the last two albums, and it even gains something in that the band feels a little more comfortable in its skin this time around. The effort feels a little less self-conscious. The driving motif of Kid A and Amnesiac was the trick of aiming at something the audience could feel familiar with-dance-club electronica, guitar rock, quiet ballads-then pull back from the formula of each of those styles just enough to disorient (and maybe intentionally “decommercialize”) the given song. Hence, “The National Anthem”‘s driving bass line dissolving into a ridiculous-sounding cacophony of brass instruments, or “Idioteque”‘s steadfast refusal to be disco-ready despite its techno drum machines.
The songs on Thief are more apt to avoid that kind of trickery. The band seems to feel able to just take a groove or a riff and build a song from it, without necessarily pulling the rug out from under whatever pop appeal it might have. The first single, “There There,” is a great example in that it actually sounds like a single, though still without sounding commercial in the Coldplay sense of the word (though for the record, I like Coldplay). There are many instances here where you can just sit back and enjoy great rock music without Thom Yorke trying to make you feel guilty for it, and at the same time the band is clearly still moving forward with its effort to make new kinds of songs that it hasn’t tried before, rather than diving back into its own catalog for inspiration. For example, “Go to Sleep (Little Man Being Erased)” features what sounds like a Dobro, and the insistent, rolling piano line on “A Punch-Up at a Wedding (No no no no no no no no)” is brand-new for them too.
With that said, there are a few questionable moves. One is that Yorke and company seemed to have stumbled on to a formula of their own on the more appealing tracks. For example, “2+2=5 (The Lukewarm),” “Where I End and You Begin (The Sky is Falling In)” and “There There (The Boney King of Nowhere)” all rely on the same basic structure to build tension up to a payoff. They slowly build momentum through the verses in a mid-tempo groove, then inch up to a point, usually two-thirds through the song, where drums and distortion pedals kick in and they blast through a coda under a repeated lyric, respectively: “You have not been paying attention,” “I will eat you alive,” and “We are accidents waiting to happen.” The effect is fantastic; it works very well. But it’s so obviously copied from one song to the next, like a template with new words and chords pasted on, that you wonder if the word “rut” could be in order here.
Then there is the matter of figuring out what on earth their big problem is. Lyrically, Yorke again paints a canvas with dark colors, evoking rather than explaining a vague pathos about where the world is headed or where it is now, as on the interminable “The Gloaming.” Simply scanning newspaper headlines could give the listener plenty to pick from in deciding what Yorke is targeting, but the songwriter himself doesn’t ever get specific. This is fine to a point, but if this same level of vague, free-floating distress came from anyone less respected than Yorke, it would probably be dismissed pretty quickly as a sort of angst-ridden window dressing. Not that the opposite extreme-the self-righteous preachings of some sort of latter-day Phil Ochs-is desirable either, but I think you get my drift. The closest we get to specificity is the album’s title, a bumper sticker slogan coined to protest George W. Bush’s controversial method of achieving the US presidency (I’m putting that as politely as I can). Wait a second: I just realized I’m going to hell for dissing Phil Ochs. Oh, and I’m not even going to touch the issue of the second parenthetical title for each song. Just smile and nod, everyone.
Really, though, this album has won me over. Despite their unfortunate decision to reprise the plodding dirge style from Amnesiac (“Pyramid Song,” anyone?) on “We Suck Young Blood (Softly Open Our Mouths in the Cold)” and “I Will (No Man’s Land),” this is truly an album that will stay with you once you’ve let it work its way in. When Yorke sings in broken falsetto, “Just ’cause you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there” (on “There There”), over his and Ed O’Brien’s minor chords, it feels like something sublime: simple but ingenious, affecting. And then “Wolf at the Door” closes the album with an articulate look at a personal, plaguing sense of anxiety, and it seems as though that postmodern curtain of irony and detachment pulls back for just a second, revealing something real underneath. If that’s the direction Radiohead is pointed in, then it seems that maybe they can be around for a very long time, confounding critics, challenging fans, and (the toughest trick of them all) easing into rock music maturity without embarrassing themselves.