not a member? click here to sign up
Hail To The Thief
No longer the nascent, impressionable - though hugely ambitious - young quintet who unleashed the blood-splattered masterpiece The Bends in the mid-'90s, nor the newly crowned kings of modern rock who enjoyed virtually unprecedented levels of acclaim circa-OK Computer, they have instead settled into a role as sort of latter-day alt. culture godfathers
Paul Nolan, 22 May 2003
Radiohead are undoubtedly at a curious stage in their career. No longer the nascent, impressionable - though hugely ambitious - young quintet who unleashed the blood-splattered masterpiece The Bends in the mid-'90s, nor the newly crowned kings of modern rock who enjoyed virtually unprecedented levels of acclaim circa-OK Computer, they have instead settled into a role as sort of latter-day alt. culture godfathers, the band each up-and-coming indie outfit looks to for the Papal seal of approval.
For sure, this is a dangerous state of affairs, because - as any performer worth his salt will tell you - the artistic muse tends to flee at the first sign of sanctification. In fairness, Thom Yorke has always been acutely aware of this. At intermittent points during Grant Gee's excellent documentary on the band, Meeting People Is Easy - filmed entirely during the fraught aftermath of OK Computer - Yorke is frequently seen to express his bewilderment at the critical garlands raining down on the group, angrily exclaiming that such hyperbolic coverage is, "complete bollocks... a total headfuck."
Radiohead's answer was ultimately to retreat and make a brace of uncompromisingly experimental albums, widely cited as being willfully inaccessible, but which in the final analysis contained some of their best work to date (Amnesiac's 'Pyramid Song', in particular, remains one of finest songs this writer has ever set ears on, period.) Advance notices suggested Hail To The Thief was going to merge the leftfield techno soundscapes of Kid A with the more trad-rock elements of OK Computer, and while such a synopsis isn't actually too far from the truth, ultimately the album doesn't quite make the same dramatic impact as either of those landmark recordings.
The opening numbers, '2 + 2 = 5' and 'Sit Down, Stand-Up' set the thematic preoccupations up straight away - life in a glasshouse post-September 11 - and feature Yorke yelping, respectively, "Don't put in me in a box" and, more pointedly, "We're walking right into the jaws of hell". A brief moment of respite arrives with one of the album's stand-out moments, the gorgeous, otherworldly "Sail To The Moon".
Again, though, the mental setting seems to be the same kind of misty, boggy, 4am autumnal mood that characterized the world-weary likes of 'Karma Police'. Delivered in the half-distressed, half-tranquilized vocal tones at which the singer excels, Yorke laments that he "spoke too soon/how much did it cost?" whilst all manner of ethereal electro effects and ringing guitar notes tumble past. Honestly, when Radiohead play like this, there aren't too many bands on the planet who can match them.
Swiftly followed by the foreboding electro pulse of 'Backdrifts?' at this point it looks as if the scene is set for another classic Radiohead long-player. Unfortunately, it's also at this stage that Hail To The Thief enters into a prolonged slump. Put simply, the four songs at the centre of the album - 'Go To Sleep', 'Where I End And You Begin', 'We Suck Young Blood', and 'The Gloaming' - suffer either from overbearingly funereal pace or simple lack of melodic nous.
Thankfully, just as the album threatens to spin off-course completely, the brilliant 'There There' comes to the rescue. Yorke has said that he was reduced to tears upon hearing the finished track, which is understandable, since it's one of the best things they've ever done, a haunted and haunting curio which screams for the ghostly images of a Brothers Quay movie (the video for "There There" is actually hugely reminiscent of the Quay classic, Alice).
Proceedings are bought to an appropriately ambivalent conclusion courtesy of the mordant, neo-blues grooves of 'A Punch Up At A Wedding', the wintry atmospherics of 'Scatterbrain' and the nocturnal ambience of 'A Wolf At The Door'. Stanley
Kubrick once opined that "the very meaninglessness of life forces us to create meaning. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light." Hail To The Thief sees Thom Yorke and co. attempting to do just that, albeit with flawed results. Still, the fact remains that even Radiohead?s comparative failures are still more interesting than most band's successes.