Radiohead: Hail to the Thief

Bacon cocktails…

Nothing really matters,
Anyone can see.
Nothing really matters
To me.

When I head out to my local record shop, during my designated lunch break — an act Thom Yorke would surely turn into some fatalistic, Orwell-lite meditation on routine and alienation — I’ll mingle with teenagers, bike messengers and CEOs alike, all frantic to walk out with their own copy of Hail to the Thief. In 2003, Radiohead is everything to everyone, the way Queen, U2, and Pink Floyd were before. They could have been bigger than the Beatles if the success of “Creep” didn’t agitate an Oxford-bred guilt complex. As Yorke put it in Meeting People is Easy: “English people aren’t impressed. There’s this automatic assumption that any degree of success means that you’ve cheated. Or you’re full of shit.”

That’s a cross Thom no longer has to bear, since whatever shit he was full of was kicked out of him — in his hometown, no less — one foggy night in 2000. Like the world-weary “Johnny” of Mike Leigh’s Naked — and Thewlis would surely play Yorke in the film — this ill-defined assault soured Thom on society, which, to that point, he’d been able to ignore. Protected from street level human misery first by privilege, then by celebrity, a simple bottling stuffed him back in boots he was outgrowing too fast.

Which is not to advocate violence, but there are tertiary benefits when an artist’s perspective is forcibly altered. Take George Michael’s “Freedom ’90,” the Cure’s Disintegration, and Radiohead’s own Kid A, the most remarkably finessed redesign of an established band’s sound since U2’s Achtung Baby. A reaction to overexposure, the undermining effects of commodification and the alienation of celebrity (a bit more Asimov than Orwell in all this), Kid A hasn’t aged a day (though Amnesiac — a collection of underdeveloped tunes from the same sessions — has somewhat dulled its glimmer).

Hail to the Thief is nearly four years removed from the reality Thom Yorke last wrote about, and for its fatuous title and the band’s recent political exploits, it’s thankfully less concerned about third world debt and paranoiac global conspiracy theories than I’d feared. Which is to say Radiohead aren’t turning into Midnight Oil.

Don’t come looking for OK Computer II, whatever Yorke’s calling this one in the press. Thief is a holding pattern, and the band’s excusatory remarks about “getting back to their roots” only underscore its chief failing: Radiohead can’t grasp that novelty and radical change aren’t necessarily the best options, whatever personal pride an artist takes from doing something “new.” This album doesn’t dig up Britpop skeletons from The Bends; Thom hasn’t regrown that ungodly embarrassing Cobain rug he sported in its videos. There’s nothing to apologize for here: Radiohead are a band, and after a fashion, bands are defined by their music. Much as U2’s Zooropa still sounded like U2, anything Radiohead does from here on out will sound like Radiohead.

Hail to the Thief reestablishes them as the most creative rock and roll band in the world, a title you couldn’t bandy so boldly on the back of Amnesiac and I Might Be Wrong. After fatuously “plugging in” at the start of the album — to themselves; to you; to Thief as a “return to form” or what have you — Radiohead sequence an hour of the best, brightest rock music you’ll hear in 2003. There are alarms, but no surprises.

The triumphant “2+2=5” could only work as the set’s opener, though the begging single “Go to Sleep” (due for release in June) is a close second. It’s an encompassing declaration of intent, defining the exploratory boundaries of Hail to the Thief, as well as the band’s professedly temporary return to “rocking out.” Sidelining any heady analysis (and there’s plenty later in the record), Thom deals with his recent political distractions, pointing out the medieval ignorance of inaction in the face of overwhelming odds: “Are you such a dreamer/ To put the world to rights?/ I’ll stay home forever/ Where two and two always makes up five.” It’s grandiose, but Yorke checks his bravado during the neurotically charged finale: “Go and tell the king that the sky is falling in/ When it’s not/ Maybe not.”

“Stand Up Sit Down,” on the other hand, is in part a return to old fears of impotence in the face of global forces at work, but our new father has every reason to revisit the emotions that dominated one of the great societal laments in rock history, OK Computer. Juxtaposing a dread spawned by media oversaturation with a resigned, hands-over-ears retreat from the rain falling outside, the tune is devastating in its defeated isolation, the diary of a medicated droog in his chair on a Sunday afternoon, bubbling under the skin. Though it’s compositionally identical to “2+2=5,” the darker subject matter and more sinister execution — far-off piano melodies, icy xylophone hits and maniacal vocal doubling — draw the face of a demonic twin in a cracked mirror.

Leading with such an excellent couplet, it’s sad to find those reactionary barbs about stagnation Yorke is trying to defuse are critically valid, if surely irrelevant for fans. “Sail to the Moon” has the serenity to survive its lamentable title and refrain, but for its beauty, it’s both lyrically and melodically reconstituted from better ballads past, like “Pyramid Song,” “How to Disappear Completely,” and “The Tourist.” Thom cautions: “Maybe you’ll be president/ But know right from wrong/ Or in the flood/ You’ll build an Ark/ And sail us to the moon,” an apocalyptic vision with all the emotional impact of Spielberg’s wan AI.

“Backdrifts” is the first beacon signaling that Radiohead haven’t lost touch with the radical experimentalism of Kid A and Amnesiac, a boxed-in, minimal collection of sine waves; gurgling, processed vocal delay; and distorted drum machine loops. Towards the middle, the band cut loose with reverse-echoed piano and guitar swipes to approximate scratching vinyl, but it drags terribly.

The second of Hail to the Thief’s three egregious redesigns, “Go to Sleep” nicely tightens Amnesiac’s only true pop song, the Smiths tribute “Knives Out.” Draping Old West reverb and twang over hugely mixed acoustic guitars, the tune carries through a surprisingly traditional half-time chorus as Yorke rambles through placeholder lyrics, alternating tossed off lines like “We don’t want the loonies taking over” with the constant response “Over my dead body.”

“Where I End And You Begin” is the only real low point on the album, as aside from Yorke’s vocals, it’s a U2 song. An easy complaint, but it sticks to the page; the finale is more alluring, with its raspy whispers and excellent melodic interplay, but it’s mostly chaos stacked high, to mask creative nudity underneath. “We Suck Young Blood” returns to the piano mode the band have explored increasingly since Kid A, a sort of drunken New Orleans death dirge with moments of depressed, timid wistfulness.

The first half of Hail to the Thief is flatly mainstream, and given the heady reputation Radiohead have cultivated since 2000, “The Gloaming” is a long-coming orgy of patch cables and synthesizer spurts. It’s a resolutely compact piece, Yorke singing over his own voice aimlessly, to the point of academic detachment, and in this view “The Gloaming” could be called a cynical, theoretical self-dare. Taking the album from start to finish, we’re still not really airborn, eight tracks deep.

Which is where the advance single “There There” comes in, as the unification of Radiohead’s mixed messages. Jonny wants to play with moogs; Ed and Colin want to rock; Thom wants to change music and society forever, or not at all. “There There” is the moment where it all crashes together, in a terrifyingly strange, yet straightforward anthem, full of beautiful and more universal lyrics, soaring harmonies and a thundering crescendo they’ve wisely trimmed from its concert length. Yorke says he wept uncontrollably when he heard the first mix, and the leaked version of Hail to the Thief supports this: unlike the rest of the record, “There There” is essentially unchanged.

More inspiring and enduring than earlier jogs down the same road are “Myxomatosis” and “A Wolf at the Door,” two of the last tracks on the album. The former is a buzzing prog redux of OK Computer’s “Airbag” that shows how the simplicity they’re striving for can work wonders with tempo; drums fall all over the track until Thom winds up a layered, head-spinning (possibly intoxicated?) verse that spills the rhythm across the floor. It’s a dizzying, stereo-panned stomp, and one of the finest moments in Radiohead’s catalog.

You’d expect the saviors of the Album Rock format to save a masterstroke for the closing slot, and Radiohead are up to the task. “A Wolf at the Door” continues the thick pastiche of Russo-Bayou parlor waltz first offered as Amnesiac’s “Life In a Glass House,” a more thorough, refined and potent — almost slick — take on that drunken, ephemeral predecessor. And it’s here, at the end of the record, that Yorke most openly deals with the psychological impact of his assault, and the fears he holds with regard to role-playing traps in society, and relationships (note the quick nod to Bryan Forbes’ Stepford Wives). Evil is out there — he’s suffered its wrath — and like a terrified Chechnyan matriarch, he wields fangs on a leash, as protection from the fuckers and future come to ransom his child.

For its moments of gravity and excellence, Hail to the Thief is neither hammer nor sickle; it is an arrow, pointing toward the darker, more frenetic territory the band have up to now only poked at, curiously. Experimentation fueled the creativity that gave us Kid A and Amnesiac, but that’s old hat to Radiohead, who are trying — and largely succeeding — at shaping pop music into as boundless and possible a medium as we deserve. Never succumbing to dilettantism, they continue to absorb and refract posits from foreign lands, over and underground, ideas most acts are satisfied to wallow in, proud of their simple originality. The syncretic mania of Radiohead continues unabated, and though Hail to the Thief is likely to fade as a slight placeholder once their promissory transformation is complete, I expect we will long cherish the view from this bridge.

This essay was gifted to Pitchforkmedia.com on 9 June 2003. It has been reclaimed by the author as a result of the site’s 2015 sale to Condé Nast.