h, the burden of being a Radiohead. In his now infamous, much-lampooned review of Kid A for the New Yorker, Nick Hornby admitted that the reason he probably wasn’t as enthusiastic about the record as he might have been was that he wasn’t sixteen years-old – that in order to truly appreciate the album you had to “sit at home night after night and give yourself over to the paranoid millennial atmosphere as you try to decipher elliptical snatches of lyrics and puzzle out how the titles might refer to the songs.” Regardless of the merit of such an argument—Hornby was hardly the only writer put off by the record’s half melodies and willful abstractions—such a snottily urbane dismissal was enough to forever consign the sometime music critic and author of High Fidelity and About a Boy to the annals of out-of-touch dads. As the old saying goes, you can’t buy that kind of press, and so like Steve Allen ridiculing Gene Vincent’s “Be-Bop-A-Lula” for its inane lyrics back in the 50s, Hornby’s parochial tut-tutting of the record made Radiohead look like it spoke in a secret code to kids today – one utterly undecipherable to anyone over the age of, say, thirty. And with Kid A somehow rocketing to #1 on the Billboard charts, the band found itself not only a major label pop band making wildly uncommercial music but also the only one selling it. And in the process, with only old guys The Flaming Lips even giving them a hint of competition, love ‘em or loathe ‘em, Radiohead quite simply became the biggest and most important pop band in the world.
But things are a little rocky these days, at least for some of the fans. In stark contrast to the almost-universal acclaim awarded to 1997’s much-ballyhooed arrival, O.K. Computer, Radiohead fans are now more-or-less divided into two separate camps – one (like Hornby) seeking a return to something more straightforward while the other (like sometime-Stylus contributor Simon Reynolds) enthusiastically cheers on the brave post-post-rock world of Kid A. And now, two-and-a-half years and 1.5 albums later (following sister album Amnesiac and a mini live-album), comes Hail to the Thief, a record that, if anything, ends up being more hyped than its predecessors. Depending on the outcome, it could be a potentially make-or-break record for the band – with the capability of reuniting fans to bring balance to the force or forever marginalizing them, banishing the group to the culty outskirts of pop indefinitely.
On first listen, you would be forgiven for being a little confused as to which path the band took with Hail to the Thief – or if they took either. This is Radiohead, after all. Opening with the sound of loud, intrusive guitar clicks, they seem to be saying, “We’re playing rock ‘n roll again” – a sense borne out by the ensuing song, “2+2=5,” and its sneeringly Britpop coda, the likes of which Thom Yorke hasn’t indulged since around the time the foliage was fake and plastic. Indeed, many of the songs, like “Sail to the Moon” and “Scatterbrained” should come as a relief to those who found the Kid A-Amnesiac nexus unbearably difficult and pretentious – many of the tunes are pretty and easy on the ears, while retaining the quirkily asymmetrical song structures Radiohead made their name with. It’s a feeling accentuated by singer Yorke, who seems comfortable in his own skin again, singing with abandon and without the aid (or distraction) of filters and distortion.
But of course, Radiohead have always been a bit too uncomfortable with convention for a mere “back-to-basics” approach (the likes of which we’ve been promised for years now). And so it doesn’t take long to realize that we aren’t exactly back in Jane Seymour’s living room again. Indeed, for fans of the Kid A-Amnesiac sound, there’s plenty of clicks, scratches, sub-bass frequencies to go around, lending the record what could best be described as sort of a compromise between 1995’s breakthrough, The Bends, and the all-out electronica binge of those last few records. And with a touch of Beatles here, a little Before and After Science-era Eno there (in fact, not one but two songs nick the melody from “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away”), Hail to the Thief has the makings of a grand consolidation of their strengths – a stately masterpiece even, a la Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock.
Yet somehow, it doesn’t add up. Until now, every Radiohead release to date has signaled a progression from its predecessor (Amnesiac excepted, as it was recorded at the same time as Kid A); in a matter of a decade, they have moved from grunge-pop to epic guitar rock, from there to dour prog and from there again to pop-electronica. Not since the halcyon days of Sonic Youth in the 80’s were records so anticipated by a rabid fan-base. And while it’s unrealistic to expect another Kid A-like transformation, by pulling all those familiar elements together, Hail to the Thief sounds, well, a little familiar; as Thom Yorke might say, there are “no surprises” here – or at least very few. In many respects, it sounds like a record they could’ve made before Kid A. It sounds like Radiohead – good old, reliable Radiohead.
Which will, of course, please a lot of people – theirs is as mesmerizingly seductive a sound as exists today: the man-against-society aesthetic, with the broken, wheezy technology and dirty fuzz-basses lending York’s inimitable whine a solitary, even hopeful quality amidst all the woeful miserablism. But after three records of that same tension exploited with knives out, as it were, what sounded positively futuristic in 1997 is getting a bit tired.
And really: Radiohead were always about more than their sound or their attitude. They’re about a capacity to move people. What made O.K. Computer sparkle was a near-perfect confluence of melody, lyrical conceits and imaginative arrangements sprinkled with touches of contemporary Britpop and anachronistic prog. Combined with a timeliness that perfectly captured the sense that all was not as cheery as Clinton and Blair would have had you believe, the result was sheer bravado. So you can understand why Q Magazine readers somewhat ludicrously rated the record number one on the rag’s all-time great albums list: it was as “of-the-moment” as any record in the last twenty-five years. And now, after six years that have essentially borne out Yorke’s portentous doomsaying, it remains the last record on which everyone could agree and, thus, the benchmark by which the band is still being judged, by-and-large.
Still, there’s an irony in Hail to the Thief. For a record whose title is a mockery of George W. Bush’s suspect election to office and the attendant culture of intolerant, divisive jingoism, it’s fairly paradoxical that any criticism of the band’s direction has largely been met by fans with the same kind of derisive charges of irrelevance that met, say, those who spoke out against the recent war with Iraq. Essentially, if you don’t get it, you’re wrong – probably the reason why the band has seemed so hesitant to give its audience anything resembling convention. But really: what’s so wrong with wanting songs from these guys rather than atmospheres with lyrics? Why is it irrelevant to hope for, if not “Fake Plastic Trees” or “Karma Police,” at least, melodies like “The Tourist”? Or even a moment as utterly commanding of your attention as the opening minute of “Everything In Its Right Place”? Of the 14 tracks found here about 12 of them have the same mood: downbeat, textured, deliberate and without much in the way of melody to distinguish them. Just...a feeling.
It’s a great, complex feeling to be sure, but often not enough to carry the underwritten, hyper-arranged music. First single “There There” has a nice ringing guitar, but as a song, it’s basically a riff with a crescendo. The aforementioned “Sail to the Moon” has a pretty, floating atmosphere and a suitably delicate arrangement wound around two very skeletal and not altogether arresting melodies (it still beats Coldplay cold, however). And so on. Aside from the loping pseudo-funk of “A Punch-Up At a Wedding” and the death-metal fuzz riff of “Myxomatosis,” it’s hard to conclude anything about Hail to the Thief other than Radiohead and producer Nigel Godrich could’ve concocted it in their sleep.
Is that so terrible? No, but it’s not worth celebrating either – not for a band this talented. About the only aspect that has the capacity to leave a defining impression is the lyrics. But even here, the singer’s own style works against him. What is supposed to be an informed, cantankerous rant against the powers-that-be and a meditation on our collective emotional state is largely neutered by his slurry, affected performance. Yes, it suits the mood, but it also reminds of what Robert Christgau said about Mick Jagger a quarter century ago, when he wrote how it seemed the Glimmer Twin could no longer be bothered to raise his tongue to the roof of his mouth to finish the word “good” when performing “Brown Sugar” in concert. Though no one will ever accuse Thom of aping Mick’s rock star indulgence, like latter-day Jagger, Yorke treads closely to becoming a parody here himself – his weary delivery, once so striking, now sounding canned, predictable and, frankly, kind of hard to understand. Given the relevance of the message he’s trying to put across—and the urgency with which it admittedly needs to be said—it’s doubly unfortunate.
So Hail to the Thief is a lot of things—drab, impassioned, yet still ambitious—but mostly it’s just frustrating. Even though I count myself among those who never came around on Kid A or Amnesiac, I can’t help but be a bit disappointed the band didn’t venture further out in the directions of those records. Perhaps I want to believe that Radiohead were right all along and that there was something in those records I was missing. Or maybe it was because I suspected there was something undiscovered out there – that Radiohead should’ve stuck by their convictions and found something even they hadn’t yet discovered, but were the only ones in popular music who had the map to. Or hey, maybe they should’ve made an incredible rock n’ roll record. That isn’t to say that Hail to the Thief is bordering on worthless, but I just get the strange feeling I’ve been here before. And when you’re talking about a group that could single-handedly put the music industry flat on its ass, that disappointment is palpable.
Reviewed by: Matthew Weiner
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01