I'm sure Thom Yorke's heart is in the right place and all that, but, my God, what is he thinking with that album title? Everyone knows that mixing politics and music is embarrassing, turning the artist into a parody of whatever cause he should champion (or complain about, as the case may be)- no exceptions. So, it's fortunate that Radiohead's message is always encrypted in unintelligible lyrics and indiscernible artwork. Weirdness prevails over obvious, ham-fisted demagoguery on the band's sixth studio album, which finds Radiohead at a crossroads, of sorts, musically. Venture down the isolationist, electronic path of experimental bliss, alienating potential fans in droves, or turn the guitars back up and revel in goat-throwing, bloated-Elvis nostalgia?
Yorke claims that Radiohead will be an unrecognizable band in two years' time. Fair enough. The man doesn't want to repeat himself. Admirable quality but, maybe, next time, eh? Hail To The Thief is almost too recognizable as Radiohead. When you break it down, Hail To The Thief sounds like a chocolate and peanut butter approach to compromising the edgier aspects of the Kid A/Amnesiac period with the more melodic textures of Ok Computer. Sorry, mouth breathing, music-theory nerds, there's barely a hint of Bends-era guitar bravado to be found. But the rest of Radiohead's fanbase can rest easy- plenty of dour melodies, electronic patter, and passively aggressive sentiments obliquely obscured by Yorke's razor thin wail to go round.
As you'd expect from a band as pretentiously arty as Radiohead, Hail To The Thief takes time and effort to sink in. No obvious singles. The melodies are all carefully tucked away in minor keys, coated in jagged noises and unexpected yet brief bouts of aggression. The opener, "2+2=5", is the only truly rocking song on the record. The build-up is worthy of classification as one of Radiohead's finest moments, and when the guitars do kick in, the pay-off is sweet, indeed. Yorke spazzes out, coloring his voice maniacally until the song's abrupt end, and it's breathtakingly good. "Sit Down Stand Up" is another builder, but this time, instead of climaxing with guitars, the song explodes with a million water bubbles into a frantic, frenetic electronic melee led by a brilliantly pulsating bass line. If you're not pledging undying devotion to the band when this occurs, you may as well stop listening because you are far too jaded to appreciate any of it, anyway.
Radiohead's reluctance to write "songs" as opposed to artfully composed "soundscapes" has dogged them since Ok Computer made them the most unlikely rock stars in decades. For Thom Yorke to call this album "Ok Computer 2" in recent interviews is a bit of a stretch, though. It's got much more in common with the robotic, ambient drone of Kid A than the sweeping beauty of Ok Computer. Yorke's melodies are always inventive, if not completely melodramatic, but the music is too scratchpad and difficult to compete with Ok Computer's colossal depth. Granted, Hail To The Thief is closer to its heir than either Kid A or Amnesiac, but that's not really saying much at all, is it?
The biggest problem with Hail to The Thief is its lack of surprise. For those who've already written the band off as arty lightweights, this album does little to rock the boat. Radiohead's morosity is almost cartoon-ish at this point. Still nothing to smile about, lads? There should be enough gold in the socks tucked under your mattresses to buy a small island by now. Yorke's beguiling anger is never directed at anything tangible. It's always just a feeling, but it's a feeling that he – and the band – have mastered. Nobody does "down" quite like Radiohead without crossing the line into self-mockery. Take the shimmering piano ballad, "Sail To The Moon", for example. Yorke's vocals are stretched to the hilt amidst guitars that are the aural equivalent of glitter. It's a distant cousin to "Subterranean Homesick Alien" off Ok Computer, though, gentler and more sentimental, and it's devastatingly pretty.
The first song that actually sounds like a band playing in a room together is "Go To Sleep." Yorke's acoustic introduction is haunting and tense, of course, and the notes he chooses to sing over the serpentine melody are unorthodox, to say the least. It sneaks up on you and grabs you by the throat like so many classic Radiohead songs do. The first single, "There There", is so subtle you could easily forget its tune after only one listen. Yorke, apparently, was so taken with the final mix of it that he wept. I've yet to be affected thusly by it, but I'm holding out hope. I don't think I've cried as a result of a song since I was four when my mother would play "We're All Alone" by Rita Coolidge because she thought it was funny to watch me cry. But that probably says more about me…
Yorke finally reveals a bit of bite on the bile-infested "A Punchup At A Wedding", in which he smarmily accosts a drunken ass for ruining the "big day." The song has a confident swagger with loose, barroom piano and noodly, seventies-sounding guitar interplay. It sounds strangely out of place amongst the other tracks, but that somehow makes it easier to appreciate. The wiry, fuzzed-out bass intro to "Myxomatosis" gives way to Yorke's studied and calculated vocal tension. The monotone chorus fits the repetitive drone of the bass as Yorke blithely mumbles, "I don't know why I feel so tongue-tied." A love song it is not.
To be as important as Radiohead is six albums into its career is a feat on par only with legendary performers of the highest order. Any complaining one can do about Hail To The Thief almost seems excessively picky. Bands just can't be this good for this long. I have to try to find flaws. Reading what I've written so far, it sounds like I may not love this album, but I do. It's just that the bar is set so high, which is an obvious testament to the band's colossal talent. Hail To The Thief is not Radiohead's apex, but it's damn near it.