Hail To The Thief


Capitol Records, 2003


REVIEW BY: Sean McCarthy


Many die-hard Bends and OK Computer fans have been patiently waiting for Radiohead to get their fascination with computer blips and loops out of their system. In the early '90s, U2 (whom many have said Radiohead replaced for 'best band in the world' status) forced fans down a similar path of acceptance with Achtung Baby and Zooropa. In 1997, U2 promised fans that Pop would be their 'return to form' album. It wasn't (not that Pop was the failure so many have claimed it to be).

So, in early 2003, when music insiders said Radiohead's new album, Hail To The Thief, was going to mark a return to their guitar-oriented attack, I was skeptical. And much like Pop, Hail to the Thief is not so much an album that reclaims their guitar-god status, as an album that continues to show the progression of a continuously evolving band.

Hail To The Thief has a ton of Radiohead staples: jazzy piano ("Backdrifts," "We Suck Young Blood"), Thom Yorke's tortured choirboy falsetto and lyrics dealing with isolation and paranoia (pretty much name any song on the album). And like OK Computer and Amnesiac, it's not all going to sink in on the first few listens.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Radiohead do indeed begin Hail To The Thief with the sound of a guitar plugged into an amp, with feedback ensuing. It's an unsubtle way of the band shouting to the listener: "The guitars have returned." But just when people start to pick up their air guitars hoping to tear into a "Planet Telex" solo ala The Bends, Radiohead playfully pull back and incorporate elements of electronica, trance and free-form jazz into "2+2 =5" and "Sit down. Stand up."

Oh, and did I say pretensions? Enough pretentiousness to make Sigur Ros' () album with no definable titles for songs and Fiona Apple's 90-plus word album title When The Pawn… seem downright earnest. Not only are the song structures disjointed for most of the tracks on Hail To The Thief, each song has a sub-title in parenthesis (e.g. the Sprockets-like title "The Gloaming (Soft Open our Mouths in the Cold)." But in the age of monoliths like Clear Channel and homeland security, far better for a mass audience to be challenged than to be fed another J-Lo and Ja Rule summer anthem.

Much like Amnesiac, Hail To The Thief sounds like it's too intelligent for its own good. The album was recorded as Yorke was vocally expressing his opposition to the military buildup in Iraq. Much of the album contains songs of apathy and resignation, mixed in with a nice Orwellian overtone, such as the song, "A Punchup at a Wedding." "Hypocrite opportunist/Don't infect me with your poison/ A bully in a china shop," Yorke sneers, as much as he can sneer. Highbrow has become as synonymous with Radiohead as ho's are in a Snoop Dogg video. Yet, Radiohead's live album, I Might Be Wrong, expertly demonstrated how rocking the most un-rocking songs on Amnesiac could sound. That will likely be the case when they take Hail To The Thief on the road.

Radiohead have the near-impossible task of trying to stun their legions of rabid fans. With Pablo Honey, they were greeted with minimal expectations, so when they pulled one of the best "one-two" punches in rock history with The Bends and OK Computer it was indeed a shocker at the time. And now, expect fans to ravenously analyze, consume and digest every nuance of Hail To The Thief in a month's time (call it The Matrix-Reloaded syndrome).

As is, Radiohead's latest album is not a step back for the sake of nostalgia (see All That You Can't Leave Behind) nor a glorious step forward, offering limitless possibilities for the band. Rather, it's simply another great album in Radiohead's impressive collection. For many fans, this may not be enough. But for those willing to put the myth of the band aside, Hail To The Thief will do just fine.

Rating: A-

User Rating: B+


© 2003 Sean McCarthy and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Capitol Records, and is used for informational purposes only.