Hail To The Thief – Radiohead
Capitol Records 7-2435-84543-2-1
New Radiohead albums are a big deal to a lot of people. It often goes beyond
excitement or curiosity and into downright anxiety. The reason is because
Radiohead is among best of what's around. Like it or not, they may be
pointing the way rock is headed. The fixture that Radiohead owe the most to
is clearly Pink Floyd, who wrote the handbook on Mythic Auras for Bands.
Both groups are known for their innovation, sophistication, and
intangibility, although Radiohead have updated Floyd's psychedelic insanity
with 21st Century alienation and paranoia. Plenty of folks still don't see
Radiohead as carrying that torch, but earlier albums The Bends, OK
Computer, and Kid A each brought not only the band but the whole
game a considerable step forward. Theirs is the brand of music that keeps
fresh long after the sell date.
Radiohead's prior LP release, Amnesiac was recorded at the same time
as Kid A, and released a mere seven months later. It is in many ways
a companion piece to its predecessor. Because Amnesiac is a
collection of good songs that were lying around after a great album was
pieced together, and therefore can be argued as more of an encore to Kid
A, the newest record has been hotly anticipated as the real Next Step in
Radiohead's evolution. Hail to the Thief shows the band brushing off
the pressure to reinvent, and instead settling in for what's beginning to
look like a period.
With Hail to the Thief, Radiohead are revisiting and refining their
pre-established sounds. Individually the songs often shine, but the album
is something of a letdown in terms of being a singular statement. On "Go to
Sleep," the band recalls their chunky space rock of Bends-era tunes – a refreshing gesture to fans that their proclivity for the dark side of the
force and other depressing themes has not affected their ability to rock.
The lead single "There There," as well as the thick and punchy "Myxomatosis"
shine as new prog-rock gems, but surprisingly it's Thom Yorke's sparse
ballads like "Sail to the Moon," "We Suck Young Blood" and I Will" that
bring the record into too-familiar territory. His emotive howling is
somehow less potent on Hail to the Thief, perhaps because lyrically
there's less to hang onto. The best Radiohead lyrics are wry and naked, but
some of the poetry here is overly oblique and repetitious. Sometimes it's
interesting to hear a word or phrase repeated so many times that it loses
all meaning, but this is a songwriting muscle which should be flexed
Still, the bright moments on Hail to the Thief are must-hear
material. By no means have Radiohead put out a sub-par record; it's still
elegant, intricate, packed with earnest emotion, and unquestionably a cut
above the competition. To use Martin Scorcese as a parallel, consider last
year's epic historical flick Gangs of New York, which would have been
a crowning achievement if made by a lesser director, but since we raise the
bar for an icon like Scorcese, it was merely average. Despite its
un-complementary sequence, Radiohead's Hail to the Thief is a
meaningful addition to their discography and a must-have for fans as well
as anyone spending their summer in fetal position crying in the corner of
their darkened room.
Post Script: Anyone who looked no further than the early, unmastered leak of
MP3's is missing out — the proper release is noticeably richer and
definitely more rewarding.