Review Summary: For Tomorrow: A Guide to Contemporary British Music, 1988-2013 (Part 68)
When it comes to 2003’s Hail to the Thief
, Radiohead fans can agree on one thing, it is a Radiohead album.
Just about everything else is up for debate.
Unlike everything preceding it, Hail to the Thief
’s standing in the Radiohead discography is still in question. Is it overrated or underrated? Is it their best or their worst? Is it a sprawling document of a band trying out as much as possible or a messy work by a band that can’t figure out where else to go? Is it way too long or just a little too long? The albums that followed it haven’t done much to contextualize it but the record that preceded it says a lot about its reception and ensuing opinion. With Amnesiac
something of a disappointment, Hail to the Thief
got the overwhelmingly positive reception a band on the comeback trail always gets. But once people started hailing Amnesiac
as one of Radiohead’s classics, Hail to the Thief
’s reputation started tanking. Even Radiohead turned on their own record, issuing enough retrospective regret that Wikipedia deemed it worthy of its own section on their page for the album. Ed O’Brien wishes it had been 10 tracks, Colin Greenwood called it a holding pattern, Thom Yorke even went as far to post a revised tracklist for the album that cuts 4 songs entirely.
Radiohead had never been an effortless band, everything they’d done to date sounded labored over, but Hail to the Thief
was the first time they sounded strained. Hail to the Thief
’s problem lies with the unshakable feeling that the band was not on the same page for its creation, a feeling all but confirmed by the presence of two titles for every song, some sprawling out into complete sentences. Sometimes they’re “returning to rock” (“2+2=5”, “Go to Sleep”), elsewhere they’re pushing further into electronics (“Sit Down. Stand Up.”, “The Gloaming”), they’re making their easiest single in years (“There, there”), and trying their hand at mild political commentary (the album’s title, “A Wolf at the Door.”). So yeah, Hail to the Thief
is a mess, but that mess allows for some interesting results to slip through. For one thing, this album belongs to Philip Selway. It’s his work behind the kit that powers these songs, granting “2+2=5” its rushing climax while powerful kettle drums lend a loose swing to “There. there.” punctuated by big 16th note snare hits. He locks into the groove on “A Punchup at a Wedding.” and sways wildly on “A Wolf at the Door.” If Hail to the Thief
let Selway finally smack some huge drum fills well good on him, if he could have rallied the rest of the band to his side one wonders what kind of record we would have gotten.
gets off the ground alright but thuds right back to earth by track two. “2+2=5” manages to court the audience waiting for another OK Computer
and those looking to what’s next for Radiohead at the same time, with carefully measured electronics giving way to a thundering climax featuring good ol’ guitars and drums and whatnot. But then “Sit Down. Stand Up.” happens and for the first time in a long time, Radiohead fall right on their face. Chilly atmosphere pervades the opening section, with gently struck bells and distant piano as Thom numbly repeats the title. Carefully, Radiohead layer on new elements, building the song to an assured climax. As the song builds, snares start rushing upwards as the piano grows louder, and then…
“THE RAINDROPS, THE RAINDROPS, THE RAINDROPS” blindly intones Thom over a manic storm of snares and bleeps while Colin Greenwood starts exploring the full length of his bass. It’s hilarious, so carefully building the non-sequiturs and atmosphere of the song’s first movement before trading all of that for even sillier non-sequiturs and spazzed out electronics. Then, just when you think it can’t get more nuts than this, Radiohead proceed to d-d-d-drop the lasers
. Like, honest to god, “pew pew pew”, sci-fi sound effect pack, laser beams.
“Sit Down. Stand Up.” is such a ridiculous mess that Radiohead have to immediately play clean up with the safe-zone ballad “Sail to the Moon.” before moving onto the rest of the album. From there the reverberating echo chamber “Backdrifts.” plays into the acoustically powered rock tune “Go to Sleep.” which then slips into the snare roll driven “Where I End and You Begin”. These three tracks take great strides to restore the album’s momentum, each with their own interesting ideas and melodies, but then the album comings crashing to a halt again with the plodding “We Suck Young Blood.” At 5 minutes, even the oddly metered handclaps can’t maintain the songs funeral dirge tempo and, despite a bridge that almost jumps things into gear, never picks up enough steam.
Hail to the Thief
suffers most from this general lack of pacing. For every inspired run of songs, there’s a half thought track that tanks the record’s momentum again. Following “We Suck Young Blood” comes another dynamic duo of tunes with “The Gloaming” making good on the eerie atmosphere of the first half of “Sit Down. Stand Up.” for the song’s full length while “There. there.”, Hail
’s only cannon Radiohead song, sounds like Radiohead’s honest to god attempts to write an Actual Hit Single paying off in spades. Pulling Hail to the Thief
’s few motifs - big, empty aural landscapes, concentrated building to thrashing climaxes, Selway’s kit bashin’ heroics - together for a great Radiohead tune that sounds like, and actually was, a big hit.
Then comes the 2-minute afterthought “I Will” to wreck the album’s flow all over again. Thankfully Radiohead really pull it together for the album’s most inspired stretch of tracks. Stretching from the awkward post-funk of “A Punchup at a Wedding.” to the clenched paranoia of closer “A Wolf at the Door.”, these 4 tracks are Hail to the Thief
’s most intriguing run as Radiohead don’t really have any other songs that sound quite like these.
If it sounds like I’m being hard on Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief
, it’s because I am. Radiohead’s legacy is fine. I could have given this album a 1.0 and penned an epic, 6000 word screen dismantling their entire legacy and the action would have been akin to flicking a pebble into an ocean. As the band themselves admit, Hail to the Thief
is a mess, starting and stopping in bits and spurts while containing too many tracks that lack a cohesive purpose as an album. But herein lies much of it’s appeal, for many it’s the album to turn to when you want to listen to a certain shade of Radiohead but don’t feel like sitting through a history lesson. For all their qualities, OK Computer
and Kid A
have dulled in the face of relentless canonization. Hail to the Thief
remains a fresh and interesting listen because of its wild eagerness. Radiohead are jumping at everything here, displaying a riskiness that doesn’t always pay off but is still commendable for having a bravery to take your status as The Best Band in the World™ less seriously than those you inherited it from.