Radiohead - Hail to the Thief
In 2003 the critically and commercially praised OK Computer and it's unorthodox first single Paranoid Android seems like a not to distant memory thanks in part to the experimental and occasionally masturbatory binges of Kid A and Amnesiac. Will Radiohead be able to bridge the gap between the old and the new whilst offering up something equally fresh with their latest studio effort ?.
Hail to the Thief opens up like every rock fans wet dream - the sound of an unchecked guitar plugged into a distorted amp humming along to itself in anticipation of the first struck chord. The opening ten seconds could easily dupe a first time listener into thinking experimentation is over - Radiohead are back and ready to rock like Creep!. Of course you'd be wrong, rocking all out on a guitar like the old days is just too straight forward and immature for a sixth studio album. We do however see a slight shift away from the multi-textured noise of Kid A and Amnesiac, just don't jump in expecting The Bends part two.
Thom York smugly describes Hail to the Thief as their 'pop record' which you should obviously take with a pinch of salt. One look at the track listing - We Suck Young Blood, Myxamotosis, and a reference to American President George Bush's dubious election result as the album title is enough to convince that this won't be on the play list at junior's next birthday party. More accurately Hail to the Thief is a patch work quilt of everything you've come to expect from Radiohead - Lyrics based on political abhorrence, paranoia, and worthlessness on top of a confident if not always consistent sound scape.
The opening 3 tracks offer up some of the very best Radiohead have ever written - 2 + 2 = 5 follows the same style of pacing so effectively used in Exit Music from OK Computer, sucking the listener into a malevolent and pedestrian groove before exploding in the final 3rd with full out guitars. Sit Down Stand Up is so deeply expressional that it's virtually impossible to do it justice with words, while Sail to the Moon is both haunting and beautiful in equal measures.
The problem arises with the electronic reverberative Backdrifts which rips you away from the enchanting opening into an emotionless throw back to the Kid A days and next track Go To Sleep doesn’t help with it's back to basic Neil Young roots being as jarring to the previous track as that was to the opening 3. It's not that it's a poor song, on the contrary Go to Sleep is a welcome return to the more simplistic sound of Radiohead, it's just inconsistent with what’s taken place before. Where I End and You Begin enables you to find your feet again with a solid and simplistic baseline which you can grab hold of. Unfortunately We Suck Young Blood will have you scratching your head once more sounding more like an irresolute House of Horrors tribute that refuses to end. Track 8 The Gloaming is another nod back to the Kid A era although this time Radiohead sound more confident than on Backdrifts sporting a solid rhythm and a feeling of impetus which was so deeply lacking on their previous electronic effort. First single from the album There There comes next that as a single works by offering a logical taste of what to expect from Hail to the Thief and provides the listener with a track which wouldn't sound totally out of place on OK Computer - as an album track though it sounds some what vanilla. I Will is little more than an acoustic prologue for A Drunken Punchup at a Wedding, a decent if unnecessarily long piano driven piece, while Myxomamotis is a song so hideously bad I can't begin to understand how it was even considered for an album track. That takes us to the last two songs - Scatterbrain, a perfectly acceptable if somewhat forgettable number and the excellent Wolf at the Door which sees Radiohead rounding things off on a pure high.
Hail to the Thief is at times exceptional and at times noticeably flawed occasionally revealing a band that for the first time since the release of The Bend's is starting to show signs of venerability. The biggest problem is that of consistency, not just in the quality of the songs, but more so in the sense of finding a groove to settle into. Hail to the Thief erratically shifts from enchanting and beautiful to a void emotional coldness, from conventional rock to a quirky uniqueness. Even if the songs stand up well individually collectively it's all over the shop. Had Radiohead stuck to the poetic intensity of Sail to the Moon and Sit Down Stand Up they may well of bettered all of their previous efforts including OK Computer. Sections of the popular media have subsequently started to downgrade Radiohead into being 'just another band', something which they themselves will probably feel more comfortable with. What they can take credit for however is managing to write some of the most vital and meaningful songs for Hail to the Thief in their entire career. The fact that they can still sound innovative, fresh, and damn right necessary for British music can easily make one forget that this is after all their sixth studio album.