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Radiohead: Hail to the Thief

Capitol, 2003

Rating: 4.5

 

 

Posted: June 16, 2003

By Laurence Station

Most bands, having surpassed the 10-year mark, take stock in what they've accomplished and issue a retrospective work, mixing best-of songs with rarities and maybe the stray live track or two. Radiohead bucks this trend by going one better: Issuing an album of all new material that pays respect to where it's been and, possibly, hints at where it might be headed in the future.

Hail to the Thief sports its share of Bends-era rockers (opener "2+2=5", "There There"), nervy, OK Computer-esque tableaus ("Myxomatosis", "Scatterbrain") and Kid A/Amnesiac-period digital blips ("Backdrifts," "The Gloaming"). Even Pablo Honey, the band's 1993 MOR debut, gets its due with the competent but pedestrian "Where I End and You Begin." In short, there's a little something for everyone here. Singer Thom Yorke's outlook hasn't brightened any, as evidenced by lyrics like "We can wipe you out anytime" and "Just because you feel it / Doesn't mean it's there", but the band is anything but moribund. Radiohead sounds like a band having fun again, no longer feeling the pressure of being at the vanguard of popular rock.

"We Suck Young Blood" is a good example of a band at play while also wholly in command of its craft. Evolving on the drunken jazz piano dirge of "Life in a Glass House," from Amnesiac, the band effectively utilizes lazy hand claps and Yorke's swaggering falsetto to build a sense of droning torpor. Around the three-minute mark, however, the wonderfully unexpected happens: an acceleration of tempo and tenor, as Yorke's voice gets tossed into a blender and the other members threaten to rock out -- to shake and shatter the song's seemingly inalterable direction. It's a brief detour, but an important one. This is a band in total control, unafraid to deconstruct traditional song structures, to throw a monkey wrench into the proceedings and still maintain an overriding sense of authority. It's that sense of throwing the script out the window, of spicing up a song just for the hell of it, that gives Hail a welcome shot of adrenaline.

"2+2=5," one of the strongest cuts here, contains all the elements of a Radiohead classic: Yorke's accusatory, nakedly emotive vocals; drummer Phil Selway and bassist Colin Greenwood's rock-steady backbeat; and a fantastic three guitar assault by Yorke, Jonny Greenwood and Ed O'Brien. "2+2=5" does an excellent job of encapsulating a great wealth of what the band has learned over the years. It's grand, but not bombastic, menacing but not fatalistically bleak, imaginatively evocative rather than site-specific. When Yorke chides apathetic listeners who were not "paying attention," insinuating that they share in the blame of the world's current political and social ills, there's real threat in his words and the undeniable musical passion displayed by the other members reaffirms why Radiohead, despite attaining near deific rock star heights, have never allowed success to overtake its sense of duty to its audience or dull its outlook regarding perceived global injustices. Uncompromising integrity, coupled with making consistently great music, is what keeps this band vital and interesting.

For all its triumphant summations, however, the downside to Hail's backwards-leaning format is obvious. For a band all but expected to point the way to the future of popular rock with each successive release, where's the innovation? Where are the avant-garde explorations, the bold artistic strokes? Fortunately, the album does offer a glimpse: The closing "A Wolf at the Door" proves unlike anything the band's done before, with Yorke singing in a lower register, affecting a pseudo-scat style, with the band backing him in woozily off-kilter waltz-time. The future of Radiohead's sound? Maybe. Nothing more than a one-off change of pace? Perhaps. But on an album that feels so retrospective, "Wolf" provides a closing gesture to what may come, and that counts for a lot.

Aside from the uniformly gloomy lyrical content (even the tender, child's ballad "Sail to the Moon" can't resist digging at the current political state: "Maybe you'll be president / But know right from wrong," Yorke sings), Hail lacks the overriding musical, thematic or experimental coherence of the band's post-Pablo Honey work. But it is a strong collection of discrete tracks, like an unreleased B-sides collection finally seeing the light of day. The songs may not have formal relations, but the sound is still distinctly Radiohead's, and that's a pretty good endorsement by itself.

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