Radiohead’s Hail To The Thief
by Matthew Moyer
Hail to the Thief
Capitol / EMI Records
Much to the delight of Radiohead fans everywhere, the latest installment of what is shaping up to be an amazing career for Thom Yorke & co. is soon to be released, entitled Hail to the Theif. While the most die-hard of Radiohead fans love anything and everything they release, the band’s last two albums, Kid A and Amnesiac, were a challenging listen for the novice fan; both albums took the experimentation of the near-perfect O.K. Computer to new and very abstract heights. Thankfully for everyone, Radiohead have managed to encapsulate just about every style of their career into one incredible record with Hail to the Thief.
The first song, “2 + 2 = 5,” is reminiscent of the final song on 1995’s The Bends, “Street Spirit” — a guitar is plucked is staccato, as Thom Yorke croons in a terribly sad tone, and the world seems as if it may end. Just when we think things will never improve for Yorke, the band explodes into a tremendous flurry of distorted guitars and they start rockin’ out like they haven’t done for years! The band then slips into a very indie rock sounding verse and chorus, making this opening track absolutely stunning.
“Sit Down, Stand Up,” features Yorke and a grand piano, with other instruments buried quietly in the background. Slowly but surely, a muzzled electronica drum beat wanders around quietly, until pouncing on the listener, like a frenzied tiger. The beat then becomes a super-fast, almost Salsa-like putter, with a loopy bassline behind, as Thom Yorke repeats a line that sounds like “Raindrops” the entire time. The first two songs, so far, show a very determined and frantic Radiohead, one much different than the band we’ve known for the last few years.
The next song, “Sail You to the Moon,” starts off reminding me of Morrissey’s “There is a Place in Hell, For Me and My Friends.” It consists mainly of piano and guitar, but the piano’s syncopation is quite similar to that Morrissey track. Just when I think I’ve got the song figured out, the guitars switch to a medieval tone, and play a strange melody, over which a ghostly Thom croons and wails. The drums eventually show up, played lightly with brushes, as the spooky song wanders on. This is one of the most beautiful Radiohead songs ever written.
“Backdrifts” sounds very much like it could have been on Amnesiac; there’s a drum machine drum beat, trippy and waterlogged-sounding keyboards, and synthesized bass guitar. Thom really cuts loose on this one, his vocals much more in the forefront here than they were in the first few songs. I could see this one being a single. “Where I End and You Begin” is a true glimpse of the early Radiohead hiding inside of each of the band members. This track reminds me of the more subdued, yet solid tracks on Pablo Honey, such as “Blow Out.” The drums are shuffled, almost Latin in nature, causing many a listener’s booty to shake uncontrollably; a distorted bassline plods along with a loopy and very catchy melody; Thom Yorke’s voice matches well the eerie keyboards and otherworldly noises that abound. Strangely enough, a distorted funk guitar shows it head a couple of times, making for a very early 1980’s postpunk-sounding track.
“We Suck Young Blood” is quite reminiscent of “Pyramid Song,” from Amnesiac; it also sounds similar to the slowed down version of “Morning Bell,” also on Amnesiac. What makes this track unique to those songs is the handclaps on every count of “4” in the 4/4 time; yeah, it sounds corny, and it is. To be frankly honest, Thom sounds like a French troubadour just learning about his wife dying; he sounds absolutely helpless, and it’s perfect. In another strange twist, the band rocks out for like 30 seconds in the middle of this song, only to return to the sad and lonely lamenting and handclaps.
Taking fans back to the somewhat controversial Kid A album (I say controversial, because it beat out The Cure’s Bloodflowers for a Grammy, which is just plain crap), “The Gloaming” is a lounging dose of electronica, complete with Atari 2600 Pong blips and bleeps. This is an interesting little song, but it’s not as stunning as the others, and would have made a nice little b-side for one of the singles. “There, There,” which I believe is the album’s first single, starts out with a tribal drum, looping bass, and almost Cure-esque sounding guitars, that quickly morph into signature Radiohead guitars. The feel of the song is quite O.K. Computer crossed with “Optimistic,” from Kid A, in that the chorus has a sad, yet triumphant melody. It takes quite some time for the drums to develop into a driving force, but they do carry the song quite well. About four minutes into the song, the band breaks into some really raunchy and raw sounding jamming, taking us back to the times of The Bends. Cool little adventure through Radiohead history, but not the most breathtaking on the album.
“A Punch-Up at a Wedding” is a song driven mainly by some laid-back drums and grand piano, while the bass guitar lays down a jazzy little melody, over which Thom sings in a “call and response” type fashion. The song itself has a 1970’s funk/soft rock feel to it, until the chorus comes along and crushes that feeling completely. Again, some weird, distorted guitars make an almost Sonic Youthian intrusion into the song during the song’s final minutes. “Myxamatosis” features an overdriven, possibly distorted bassline, and funky and peppy “Airbag” style drum beat, and a descending melody, all of which make for a frantic little song. This is by far the hardest rocker on the album, but it’s just kind of boring.
The next song, “Scatterbrain,” is Hail to the Thief‘s crown jewel. It is simply and completely gorgeous in every way possible. The primary instruments are a lightly tapped drum beat, a calm, quiet little guitar playing angelic melodies, a subdued bass, and Thom’s voice is at its very best, singing an ascending vocal melody; it’s clearly evident that Thom knows how wonderful this song is, as you can hear his pride in the way he sings. The general sound of the song is a slowed down version of “Knives Out,” crossed with the dreamier tracks from O.K. Computer. I can’t get this song out of my head, and I hope I never do; as for right now, this is the greatest single Radiohead song I have ever heard; this one’s a must hear, even if you don’t buy the record.
The album closes with the weird “A Wolf at the Door,” featuring who I think is Thom rapping over an eerie guitar melody, slowly shuffled drums, and a plain bass line. The chorus features Thom singing a beautiful little melody, and it makes up for the rapping. The next verse begins with Thom “oohing” and “ahhing,” only to give way to his rap/ chant delivery of the lyrics, which are fairly unintelligible. I could have done without this song, but I bet I’ll like it a few months from now, as pretty much everything these guys do tends to grow on me (I hated Kid A for the first month I owned it; now I love it).
Let me just take this opportunity to state that I am an enormous Radiohead fan, and have been since they hooked me with The Bends; my reason for telling you this is that I have never enjoyed a Radiohead record as much as I have Hail to the Theif upon first listen. I liked parts of O.K. Computer when it came out, but I wasn’t a huge fan right away. I absolutely love this album already. All I can say is “let the debate begin, Radiohead fans: is this one better than O.K. Computer?” It could be sacrilege to make such bold statements, but once you hear it you’ll understand. This one is a must-hear, and is, without a doubt, the best album of 2003 so far.