Radiohead--Hail to the Thief: A Reconsideration

With new Radiohead songs popping up seemingly by the day, and a new EP maybe on the horizon, it seems an appropriate time to take a look back at the band's least-well-regarded album since Pablo Honey, namely 2003's Hail to the Thief.

What follows is a track by track, live-blog style listen through of the record. Hopefully at the end we will be closer to understanding where this record fits in with the general movements of pop in the last decade or so...

1. Appropriately subtitled, "The Lukewarm," one can understand how this opener would leave die-hards dry. It has an almost punk frenzy to it that was perhaps only present on much earlier songs like "Just" and the one misfire on OK Computer, "Electioneering." People had hoped for a return to the band's earlier, 'Alternative' sound, but I don't feel like this kind of ranting intensity was what anyone had in mind. Despite that, the guitar tone, particularly on the interlude that comes in around 2:30 is great, as is the Beatlesy bridge Thom sings over that figure that actually leads directly to the song's resolution.

2. "Sit Down Stand Up" opens with the sequenced beat familiar from Amnesiac and in some ways it has similarities with that album's version of "Morning Bell"... However, the driving, dark central section, along with Thom's lyrics about "the jaws of hell" lend the track an eerie, dark core absent from even the most despairing moments on Amnesiac. The more punishing beat that comes in around 3:10 combined with Thom's repetitive vocals confirm us in our belief in the song's dark progress--there is something bleak, hopeless about this frantic repetition.

3. "Sail to the Moon" Here we are back in 'Pyramid Song' territory, the slow melancholic piano ballad; here Thom's keys are augmented by some lovely guitar work, but despite the set-up and dynamic integration of the band as the song evolves, we are still hovering in a universe of irresolution. The tension continues to mount.

4. "Backdrifts" begins with samples almost reminiscent of the noisy "Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors" from Amnesiac, but Thom's hooky vocals make it clear this track is moving more in the direction of dub music, in an extremely oblique, British way prefiguring some of Animal Collective's material.

5. "Go to Sleep" has a guitar centric opening, with a characteristically progressive, moving bass line provided by Colin Greenwood (along with U2's Adam Clayton one of the most underrated bass players in rock). There is something of the guitar centric movement one associates with The Bends on the middle section of the tune, and one is almost ready for an explosion in the mold of "Just," but the lead figures Johnny eventually overlays are not nearly so discordant nor lead-like as those on the earlier song, and surprisingly, as we are expecting some kind of climax, the track fades out... It's almost like the band is toying with us...

6. "Where I End and You Begin" Bass-heavy intro with ethereal analog synth waves cloaking us, we enter into a driving fog, a movement towards we know not what. Thom's vocals again provide the illusion of direction, but the overall mood is still one of profound discontent. I'm beating a dead horse, I know, but the reason people are down on this record is because it's, well, dark as hell!

7. "We Suck Young Blood" Predictably no break from the unrelenting misery here. The interlude vocals are beautifully interwoven, and the hand-claps are an unexpected touch for Radiohead, but overall this track is Thom at his most discordant. This track is why people hate Thom Yorke. The piano drone riff that kicks off around 3:00 briefly gives us a hint of progress, but in a matter of seconds we are back to dreary dissolution. Hints of Thom's future Twilight involvement in the theme here?

8. "The Gloaming" is eltronica central, for this record, and it may as well be called the "glooming" because it is about as dank and fog-ridden as you can get with a staticy electronic beat backing you. The interplay of beats is an advance on the brilliant "Idioteque" in some senses, but here there is something missing... Perhaps it is a melody that resolves in a satisfying way?

9. With "There There" we finally reach a moment of release. And what release. This is among my favorite songs by the band. The booming tom toms combined with the electric introductory guitar riff set the stage perfectly. Thom then comes in singing a resolution-laden melody! When he gets to the 'chorus' the crunch of Ed and Johnny's guitars is positively divine, and the second chorus, where Thom resolves up instead of down on the second "just cause you feel it/doesn't mean it's there" is simply sublime. The transition that follows, while looking back to other segmented compositions such as "Paranoid Android" also looks forward to the progressive structures to be found on such In Rainbows gems as "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi." The second half of the song returns us to the loud, clangy noise (influenced by Sonic Youth as much as Zeppelin) we associate with a younger version of the band ("My Iron Lung," "Paranoid Android," etc.). This song ultimately plays a role similar to that played by "Optimistic" on Kid A; it is in keeping with the tone of the rest of the album, but it also hearkens back to an older, more familiar sound. I consider this to be the album's peak.

10. "I Will" (the same title as a brief The Beatles cut by Paul McCartney) brings us back to the limited pallet introduced earlier. The harmony singing here is both impressive and effective, and there is something simply appealing about the composition of the song, something almost Spanish or Classical in its structure...

11. "A Punchup at a Wedding" More hints of direction here, with an almost Madman Across the Water-era Elton John opening over a funky electronic beat. Thom's vocals immediately dispel any further comparisons to Mr. Dwight, and the progressive guitar riff that comes in suggests we are again in the land of resolution... The chorus, which comes in around the 1:50 mark, is heartbreaking, if possibly cloying to some ears (not these, I'm just guessing...)... This, like "There There" has the feeling and structure we more commonly associate with a 'song'... The rest of the album seems interested in testing this boundary, seeing how completely feigned structures can stand in for the real thing... Or something. I like this one. The sample that comes in around 4:00 is great and adds a layer of continuity with some of the earlier songs, in that it offers a cold counterpoint.

12. "Myxomatosis" heavy, odd time-signature guitar figure opens here with a crushing synth bass doubling. Despite this daunting opening, the interplay between the synth and Thom's voice works well, particularly given the contrast created when the synths drop out. Synths that drop in around 1:40 are amazing texturally. No chorus in sight. This is an impressive track, despite its bending back to the mean in some senses, definitely worth re-hearing if it's been a while.

13. "Scatterbrain" Perhaps the first overt jabs at pure beauty, 54 minutes into the album? Okay. Live, touchable guitar figure opens this piece. Can the delicate warmth last? Yes! We have a very melodic Thom here, singing over some well modulated changes. Dissonance undergirds, as ever, but the separation of the melodic and the discordant is finally at peace, the two halves having reached some accord over the song's first minute. The promise is fulfilled, a great number.

14. "A Wolf at the Door" Back to the dissonance, punky delivery of the first song, mixed with the processional grandeur of "Life in a Glass House"... We're getting close to the end. What's that? A great chorus? Awesome! Didn't see that one coming guys, nice work. Great song. Great way to end an extremely challenging album.

Final verdict? As I say just above, a challenging record, and one in its way as dark as Closer or In Utero. Happily this album did not precede a suicide but was instead a stop along the way to the glorious In Rainbows and the interesting new tracks emerging now... Were this produced by any other band it would be hailed as a masterpiece. It has a bleakness of its own. It makes me understand new aspects of depression, of obsession, of the desperation inherent in trying to be. I think it's a great album.

1 comment:

Stephen said...

I always thought this album was underrated. There There has definatley been one of my favorites too. That Smiths-y riff is just too good.