Radiohead Hail to the Thief

[Capitol; 2003]

Styles: experimental rock
Others: Björk, Sigur Rós, Autechre, Aphex

I hate album reviews. I've never even read one in its entirety. Believe me I've tried, but I can never get past the first paragraph. Writers seem to be plagued by some kind of unknown curse, forcing them to start off each piece with what always turns out being undeniably some of the worst writing in modern literature (and God help me, for I have just succumbed to the same dreaded fate). So I've been asked to write a bit about Radiohead's Hail to the Thief, and now I'm stuck trying to figure out how to begin. According to all music reviews ever written, my choices are limited. I could (1) start off with some sort of loosely related anecdote about a trip to the movie theatre or something, (2) create a kind of analogy that means nothing to any of the readers, (3) drag another Radiohead biography through the mud, or (4) try to come up with something a little funny and different but fail miserably. Anyway, I guess the latter is what I ended up doing.

We all agree that Kid A is indescribably brilliant. Amnesiac followed shortly after its release as, in my opinion, not much more than a mechanism to reestablish peace and balance within the band. This was understandable; so I thought to consider the record a sort of "b-sides" album. Don't get me wrong, the songs were fantastic, as Radiohead songs always were and will be, but what the album lacked was a sense of uniformity and composure. It was more or less a slough of songs thrown together, like a patchy quilt. In my mind the band got away with something relatively subpar. I guess I shouldn't have expected to be blown away by two consecutive albums, but Amnesiac's lack of impression made my expectations for Hail to the Thief very high.

However, expectations are what disappoint the best of us. My feelings on Hail to the Thief are almost identical to those on Amnesiac. With Kid A, Radiohead took the world by surprise. The music was not at all what anyone was expecting; it broke boundaries and mixed genres as no one had heard before. Several months later the band released an album comprised of reject songs from the Kid A sessions. Again, the songs were astounding, but a bit of regression and haste was apparent on the album. With the release of Hail to the Thief, I think we were ready for something new. Unfortunately, what we got was just another album full of great Radiohead songs.

Ok, so the band didn't push themselves very far for this release. We can't expect them to keep changing the face of rock, can we? The music on Hail to the Thief tends to sound similar to that on the previous two albums, but something is noticeably different. On the last two, the band's instruments complemented each other perfectly, blending the melodies in the most pleasant of harmonies. On Hail to the Thief, however, the instrumentation sounds polar. All of the sounds are obviously and distinctly separate, rendering each instrument insular. Curiously, this is still the case even after the band abandoned the isolated recording technique used during the Kid A sessions.

Another difference in the sounds lies in the electronic aspects. Instead of working to individualize a unique sound, it sounds as though they let the machines do most of the work. The bleeps tend to sound more Casio than Apple. For example, the drumbeat throughout most of the track "Sit Down, Stand Up" sounds very amateur. In fact, so much so that a metronome could almost take its place. The song redeems itself, however, by exploding its pre-programmed beats into what sounds like a mass confusion of drumming. Very nice.

I'm a firm believer in albums speaking as single bodies rather than as individual songs. Both OK Computer and Kid A have a consistent energy -- or temperament throughout, like Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon or Sigur Ros' ( ). All of the band's other releases, including the newest, carry a strange, patchy, erratic feeling. Hail to the Thief practically begs listeners to skip to favorite tracks and back. It bears the consciousness of greatest hits or b-sides compilation. To be honest, some tracks have no business even being on the album at all. "Backdrifts," "The Gloaming," and "A Punch-Up At The Wedding" are definite weakpoints and do very little for the record.

What's most interesting to me about Hail to the Thief is that it sounds like it's playing the role of a conclusion, or the last chapter in a book. It does a great job of summing up pretty much everything that the band has done up to this point. And it's done well, as it doesn't sound redundant or too regressive. The opening track is "2 + 2 = 5." Its instrumentation, structure, and style all sound as though it belongs on the My Iron Lung EP. "Sail to the Moon" sounds like a cross between "Pyramid Song" and an OK Computer b-side. The beginning of "Go To Sleep" is in the same vein as "Follow Me Around," but quickly shifts to sounding like "Optimistic." "We Suck Young Blood" carries the same mood as "Life In A Glass House;" except, well, maybe a bit creepier. "Scatterbrain" is even a bit reminiscent of "Sulk." Yet all of these songs are excellent and sound very fresh, which proves Radiohead's uncanny ability to reappropriate its own music into something new.

So this is it. Radiohead released another bunch of great songs. This is their last chance, right? It's time for them to redefine themselves again, right? Well, probably not. If they do, we probably won't be able to help but give them a good score. But it seems as though this may very well be the path they choose. In a recent interview printed by the Dutch magazine OOR, Thom Yorke stated, "Radiohead will be completely unrecognizable in two years." This is obviously exciting for me. If I were to actually invest the faith in believing this statement, Mr P might make me write the review for the next album. Let's hope Thom's lying.

1. 2+2=5
2. Sit Down. Stand Up
3. Sail to the Moon
4. Backdrifts
5. Go to Sleep
6. Where I End and You Begin
7. We Suck Young Blood
8. The Gloaming
9. There There
10. I Will
11. A Punchup at a Wedding
12. Myxomatosis
13. Scatterbrain
14. A Wolf at the Door

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