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Hail to the Thief
Posted: June 16,
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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