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.