Radiohead – Hail to the Thief

RadioheadHail to the Thief (Capitol)

Radiohead hasn’t entirely solidified its legacy in the six years since OK Computer. Kid A was a big statement but didn’t necessarily let us know where the band was headed; and Amnesiac can’t really be considered on its own merit because the tracks from Radiohead’s fifth album were really culled from the Kid A sessions.

So the band had all eyes on them regarding details of their sixth album, Hail to the Thief. Kid A had been a great move from Radiohead; it set a precedent that in the future you should only expect the unexpected. Then, as months went on and Radiohead entered the studio for the Hail to the Thief sessions, they’d pop up every once in a while to remind us that the new album would be something that we’ve never heard from them before. So at first listen, I wonder: what happened to those bold and exciting claims? Thom Yorke has recently been quoted as saying Hail to the Thief is like “OK Computer 2,” and the songs certainly back that statement. Hail to the Thief might be considered revolutionary had it been released by any other band, but for Radiohead it just sounds like retreading old ground. Even the record’s theme—dealing with the bleakness of the future—screams OK Computer.

But with all of the failed expectations of something radical and brilliant from Radiohead, we’ve forgotten the most determinant factor in the quality of a band’s work: the songs. With the exception of a couple of tracks (“Go to Sleep,” “A Punch Up at a Wedding”), the band sounds stronger here then they have in years, certainly stronger then on their last two releases. And as an added bonus, they actually sound like a band again. The songs are more conventional, but where they lack experimentation they have heart, and instead of the detached sound of Kid A and Amnesiac we find palpable human emotion.

The album features a handful of moments that are overwhelming. Two of these appear in each of the first two tracks: in “2+2=5,” Yorke’s pained falsetto gives way to an explosion of guitars, only to be quieted by a now-livid Yorke screaming, “Don’t question my authority / or put me in a box.” The chaotic state which ends “2+2=5” is an instant wakeup to anyone who was ready to write Radiohead off. The second track, “Sit Down. Stand Up,” waltzes along much like OK Computer‘s “Climbing up the Walls,” building until it climaxes with Yorke repeating the same phrase in an almost trance-like state over a breakneck beat. On previous albums Radiohead has flirted with electronic music, but this is the first time they’ve ever approached pure dance ecstasy. Maybe, the last two releases were just a glimpse at the cathartic power Radiohead can harness electronically. If so, it’s well worth the wait.

Yorke’s voice has never sounded fuller, more expressive, better then it does here. Whether left to its own devices on one track or allowed to roam with multi-tracked harmonies (“Sail to the Moon”, “I Will”), it’s evident that Yorke is in a class all of his own. A lot has also been made of Radiohead returning to “guitar rock” and although they find time to really fuck things up (“2+2=5,” “We Suck Young Blood”), Jonny and Ed mostly settle for other-worldly atmospherics and texturing from their six-strings (“Where I End and You Begin”). It’s this route, however, that finds the most success. Even the rhythm section has enough time to shine on another standout, “Myxomatosis,” where Phil and Colin provide a solid wall of drum’n'(distorted)bass for Yorke to stand. The band again finds production duties handled by the sixth, um, Radiohead-head Nigel Godrich; who continues to record the band on seemingly another planet.

Hail to the Thief closes just as well as it opens with two more highlights: “Scatterbrain” and “A Wolf at the Door.” The former finds Radiohead realizing that they can still write a pretty melody—a la “Motion Picture Soundtrack” or “Let Down.” The guitars chime and interact to form melodies positively dreamy while Yorke comes as close as he ever will to replicating the sensitive, endearing sound on some of The Bends‘ finest tracks. “A Wolf at the Door” features Yorke free-flowing poetry in an almost performance-artsy way, and although the idea sounds bad on paper, it actually works. The payoff on “A Wolf” is the chorus, where multiple Yorkes sing above slightly delayed guitars.

Culturally, Hail to the Thief won’t have nearly the impact that OK Computer had, and musically it’s not as revolutionary as Kid A. But I get the feeling that Kid A was a child of necessity, that it was rushed into the world because Radiohead felt they had to change to meet the lofty expectations people now have for them. Inside, the band had one more great rock record they wanted to release and never got the chance to, and while it isn’t as consistent as OK Computer, the best points on Hail to the Thief are transcendent. This isn’t Radiohead changing the musical landscape again—that can wait for the next album judging by Yorke’s recent claim that “Radiohead will be completely unrecognizable in two years.” This is the best band on the planet proving to all the pretenders who’ve emerged since ’97 that to this day no one can do it better.

So what will Radiohead’s legacy become? We still can’t be completely sure. But Hail to the Thief is a step in the right direction, one that ensures that no matter which form Radiohead transforms itself into, they’ll still be the best at what they do. Another fantastic album that puts everything else to shame.

18 thoughts on “Radiohead – Hail to the Thief”

  1. Nice review for the most part, but how exactly was Kid A “a child of necessity…rushed into the world”? For one thing, they spent more than two years writing and recording the songs for it (and Amnesiac, as you point out). For another, while it may have been necessary for them to move away from the sound and expectations of OK Computer, surely you’re not saying that Kid A itself was specifically the album Radohead “needed” to make?

    And, since when did a record have to have “impact” or be “revolutionary” to merit a favorable review?

  2. “the band sounds stronger here then they have in years” … “The album features a handful of moments that are overwhelming” … “Yorke’s voice has never sounded fuller, more expressive, better then it does here” … “the best points on Hail to the Thief are transcendent” … “This is the best band on the planet proving to all the pretenders who’ve emerged since ’97 that to this day no one can do it better”

    How much more favorable can a review be? Sheesh.

  3. The point was that I don’t think Radiohead were ready to release Kid A, but did so because they felt they had to. I think Radiohead wanted to put out Hail to the Thief right after OK Computer (which is perhaps why a lot of the songs on Hail to the Thief were actually written in the post-OK Computer years), but put out Kid A instead because they didn’t want to get caught doing the same thing twice in a row.

    And the point of the review was that despite the fact that it isn’t “revolutionary” or have an “impact”, it’s still one hell of an album. I think it actually succeeds more without the impact OK Computer has because you can forget about the album’s societal relationship and focus simply on the music.

  4. I don’t know about everyone else, but I was blown away. Forget Ok Computer!! A magical piece of work on it’s own, but Hail to the Thief this has true expression and freedom. It takes off to a place were Ok Computer couldn’t possibly go. This band even over shadows the Mighty Beatles. Technology put to It’s greatest use!!!!!

  5. I think it’s obvious the psychedelic musings of The Beatles near the end, coupled with the madness of Barrett, gave birth to Pink Floyd. Without The Beatles and Floyd, Radiohead couldn’t exist, so Radiohead is an extension of The Beatles (b-sides of Amnesiac even sound like The Beatels). It’s even true that this ablum couldn’t exist if Kid A had never been made….but it’s the better album, the very best since OK Computer. OK Computer was groundbreaking. Kid A was groundbreaking, but sometimes a weak album. Kid A and Amnesiac took a lot of work, but Radiohead found their new sound and, through live acts, developed new songs for Hail to the Thief, THE best album since OK Computer. It’s heartfelt, funny, amazing at times. It’s even danceable at times, whereas the previous two albums never were. If Radiohead goes in this direction, the next album will be bleak, saddening and blasting in dance clubs across Europe! So this was a very good review, and right on all counts.

  6. I enjoyed the review- for sure. But one thing I, as a wanna-be musician, see is Thom and the boys’ desire to delve into computer music and odd, off timed, challenging music to write and play. A genius who has done what they are a genius at for many years will no doubt get bored of it. Genius must evolve, as in radioheads case or it will become bored and move on. In this evolvution, and this re-creating of themselves as individuals, and more importantly- as a band it is important to explore. I was surprised to see Hail, for I naturally assumed, following the Floyd route – that the other guys couldn’t possibly all have the same desire to explore so far off native shores. Where conventional chords, and conventional ‘hand on guitar’ methods have grown boring and predictable despite any amount of talent, I see where the new frontier of computer music driven albums are not only more appetizing to bands, but to newer audiences. I bathe in this Brave New World, and embrace it. I still will always have a taste for acoustic honey, but cold calculating precision of midi synched softsyths makes the robot in me feel newly polished and calibrated. I look at Hail as a release of old songs- and maybe a little more capital to keep the boys on the map so they can continue whatever it is that makes them them. Like Midas- anything this perfectly balanced band touches- is gold- or platinum. The political and social “musicification” in Kid A/Amnesiac has been turned into a more tangible, human analog calculation on Hail, as in OK Computer (the title of that masterpiece even hints on radiohead’s future as a band, and ours as a race.) So embrace the information age…for change is inevitable, and a constant. It is strange that the US can not even come close to such musical genius’ as radiohead….being an american- I wonder why that is. This album, no doubt, is the band’s way of excersizing it’s opinion. Inside Thoms seemingly ranting lyrics is a strong message.

  7. Well put, and I agree that it’s great to see Radiohead evolve and stay ahead of the curve, but for me personally the most moving, touching moments in the Radiohead catalog are “Black Star”, “Let Down”, “The Tourist”, etc…so I love to hear that they still have a “Motion Picture Soundtrack” or “Scatterbrain” in them to balance the “Idioteque” and the “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box”.

  8. “Put out the same thing twice in a row”????? In the reviewer’s follow-up comment, he basically says that this new album is the same thing as OK Computer. I don’t know about the rest of you, but despite Mr. Yorke’s claims, I find little resemblance between Hail… and OK Computer. OK Computer was anthemic, epic rock with sweeping melodies and multiply overlaid harmonies and vocals. The new album is nothing like that. It sounds more like a primarily-Kid A-with-a-little-touch-of-The-Bends to me.

    I love the new album, but I think comparisons to OK Computer are really off the mark.

    Lastly, I have a problem with the end of the review. It sounds like one of those forced grade school book report endings where an attempt is made to wrap everything into a tidy little package, but it doesn’t work. “So what will Radiohead’s legacy become? We still can’t be completely sure. But Hail to the Thief is a step in the right direction…” Radiohead doesn’t need to take ANY steps in ANY directions to ensure a lasting legacy. They are the best and consistently most interesting popular rock band of the past decade. Period.

  9. I agree with you DifferentTOm, I actually think they are the best rock band of all time. But they are at the same point in their career as U2 and R.E.M–how to move on and follow up a total killer (in Radiohead’s case, one of the greatest albums of all time). Radiohead are the best adn consistently most interesting popular rock band of the past decade because of the three albums that followed up OK Computer. But if they released a dud after OKC, you wouldn’t be saying the same thing. The fact is though, even though they have already ensured a lasting legacy, they can still alter how that legacy will look. They can continue to amaze, or they can lose their edge and become–for lack of better word–a joke(if you don’t believe me, look at the Rolling Stones, U2, etc). I never said they WOULDN’T have a lasting legacy, but what the legacy will be isn’t nearly set in stone and won’t be until a few years after the band has called it quits.

  10. All I can say is Hail to the Thief is greatest album ever made, the band’s two previous albums are puzzles that get more fascinating and beautiful with each listen, though. “Hail to the Thief” may be even more dense and inscrutable. As tense and anxious as “Kid A” and “Amnesiac” and as epic and paranoid as “OK Computer,” “Hail to the Thief” will take a while to reveal all of its secrets.

  11. oh boy….it is setting in….this album is … no words can describe it….

    THom can finally harmonize!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    ;) Brilliant…period…if Mozart was around he would bow down.

  12. I fully agree with Liel_0. “the band’s two previous albums are puzzles that get more fascinating and beautiful with each listen”, especially this comment. It’s interesting to discuss all our viewpoints on each of Radiohead’s albums, but really, it seems to me that Thom wouldn’t care either way what kind of legacy you think he is leaving. I find this is what sets him and Radiohead apart, among a million other things. They truly are brilliant. Appreciate it for what it is, not what it’s not, yet.

  13. While I think Radiohead is a fascinating musical force, worthy of all the comparisons to The Beatles (and in my opinion, especially with all the piano atmospherics on ‘Hail’, to Pink Floyd), none of their albums are “The Best Record Ever.” It is a little known fact that the title of “Best Record Ever” belongs to a mysterious, as yet to be named or known hermit in “the mountains” who will never be recorded because he’s totally broke and in this God-forsaken remote wilderness with no electricity and only his 6 string that’s down to 4 rusty, finger-cutting wires.

    All this talk of “Best” makes me want to become that hermit, free of all this idle ranting and inescapable hypocrisy.

    And yes, I see the irony in calling “this” hypocrisy while contributing to it, and therefore becoming a hypocrite.

  14. I would like to know what is wrong with the song “A punch up at a wedding”?

    I think that is one of the best tracks on the album.

    that is all.

  15. RadioHead have ONE good song, its called AirBag and its on OK Computer. Other than that Radiohead are pretentious and self indulgent. Their music gives me the same feeling I had when i was sitting in math class. I was numbingly bored and totally mystified as to why i needed to know any of that material as i would NEVER need it in adulthood. Thom Yorke Stuck a radio on his Head and Called it Macaroni!

  16. A late posting here, but I finally thought I would to see what others opinions of this album were.

    Greatest album of all time is completely subjective, of course. However, speaking from my own personal tastes, I happen to find Hail to the Thief to be my favorite album that I have ever listened to. Ever. Not Dark Side. Not Kid A. Not The White Album.

    The more I listen, the more it sucks me in. There isn’t a song I don’t enjoy. And it all fits together.

    I agree with previous comments. I think the meaningfulness, relevance, brilliance, and quality of this album will only grow over time. In the end, I believe that this album will sit next to all those Led Zeppelin, Beatles, The Who, Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, etc. albums that consistently get called the “Greatest album ever.”

  17. Radiohead is very good. But they are not as good as the Floyd or the Beatles.

    And dont forget about a little band caleld the Flaming Lips, who have made more masterpieces than Radiohead has.

    I would say:

    clouds taste metallic

    yoshimi battles the pink robots

    the soft bulletin

    are one notch better than:

    ok computer

    kid a

    hail to the thief

    Its CLOSE, but the lips still have the edge.

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