In September of 2002 Radiohead reconvened at Ocean Way Studio in LA to begin work on their sixth long play record. The much anticipated release would prove to be a departure from prior albums, Kid A and Amnesiac. The record signaled to many a movement away from albums of computer generated sounds and vocal abstraction. With the release the band was indicating that they had travelled down the electronica path as far as they desired and were setting a new goal. The goal was the marrying of their recently displayed electronica abilities with the live sound of playing together in a room. The eventual result Hail to the Thief was considered a return to the guitar sound of Ok Computer and The Bends. Hail to the Thief was a critical and commercial success as it reached 1# on US charts and 3# on the UK charts. Twelve years later it is a beloved disc for many Radiohead fans.
In contrast, it is no secret that there is a pervading feeling from the band, that the release was not all they had hoped and they were somewhat disappointed in the record. In interviews with both members of the band and perennial Radiohead producer, Nigel Godrich, they have expressed disillusionment about the album. The band and Godrich have said Hail to the Thief was not edited enough, was too long, and the playlist was sub par. In October of 2008 Thom Yorke went as far as releasing an alternative sequencing of the songs, dropping four songs altogether. In an interview that same year with Dave Fanning, Yorke stated,” He still could not get his head around the album.”
Those responses have always given me pause and made me wonder why? I am just shooting in the dark here, but could some of these feelings have originated from the band attempted a different studio recording style and not liking the experience? Radiohead had elected to try recording a song a day in LA. The band was also attempted to step away from their prior stress laden approach to recording. They attempted to shortcutting the perfectionist tendencies and stop obsessing over minutiae. Instead the band was striving to weave the sound of live play with the digital advancements on offer in the studio. The record itself came together relatively quickly taking about seven weeks in total. This was just short of miraculous when compared to the legendary agony of Ok Computer and Kid A’s marathon studio development sessions. Was Hail to the Thief dismissed by the band in hindsight because it was almost too easy to create or that they had over corrected? Could there have been doubts about the process? Was this feeling generated because unlike every other time they had finished an album, this time as Ed O Brien said,” They didn’t want to kill each other.” Whatever the reason for all the Monday morning quarterbacking; Hail to the Thief is really an under appreciated jewel. Coming up on the twelve year anniversary of the release, I think Hail to the Thief deserves a dusting off and a closer reexamination.
Some critics of the album have stated that this album unlike its two predecessors was not groundbreaking; instead it was a place holder. Others felt if did not follow the concept album technique that Radiohead had utilized effectively in the past. I humble disagree with the idea that Hail to the Thief was not a concept album. Indulge me for a moment. The concept starts with the artwork on the cover, by the esteemed Stanley Donwood. When you look at the artwork close up it is fragmented with powerful words and colors that hold various levels of strength. When you step back and look again it creates another strong but completely different picture. The vivid colors give off a frenetic energy. The same goes for the music on the release; there is tremendous energy on the songs. At first the placement of the songs seems haphazardly sequenced but when you take a step back the full picture develops. What many think of as a non concept album is actual a concept album well disguised.
The varying segments make the whole. As the disc plays through, the problems of the world beginning to overcome the personal distractions and in the end the world’s problems come crashing at your door. The music on the surface was bright tones and more outward looking than the prior two albums. The vocals were unfettered and full throated with the lyrics coming to the forefront. The ebullience of the music provided allowances for the dread that pervades the album. That underlying feeling of dread originated from a concern about where civilization was headed. Almost every song pointed out the different sources of the dread; War, politics, disappointments in personal relationships, the powerful taking advantage of the weak, the struggles that each person has internally to continue functioning, the hypocrisy of the popular press and culture, fears about what our children would face in the future. Much of this dread is expressed with motifs from fairy tales and with literary references to Dante, the book 1984, Homer and Gulliver’s Travels. Words, words, words just like the album cover.
Radiohead has willingly or unwillingly taken on the role in contemporary music of the world’s temperature taker. Their albums are akin to periodic assessments on mankind’s fetid fevers of intolerance and stupidity. The music on Hail to the Thief is filled with the forlorn hope for improvement and the disappointment of realizing not only is the patient not improving but has taken a turn for the worse.
Hail to the Thief has been frequently described as political, Thom Yorke has stated time and time again in interviews, his intent was the exact opposite”Yorke’s strategy on Hail to the Thief seemed to be distilling political themes into childlike simplicity using fairy tales and folklore. He had also stated that he wanted the album to write itself and that the lyrics were whatever came out of his mouth in studio. There is a definite stream of consciousness element to the lyrics. That being understood it should come as no surprise that current events were going to surface, as Yorke revealed that he listened to and watched the news almost to obsession at the beginning of the second Iraq war. What appears to be at the catalysis for the lyrics was Yorke identifying mankind’s confusion with what was currently transpiring, the tormenting fear that history was again repeating itself. In some respects the dread underlying this release is the realization that we were going to make the same mistakes again, and pay a very high cost.
Unlike its two predecessors, Hail to the Thief is in many ways a “vocals and lyrics” record. Yorke’s voice steps out of the shadows of obscurity that it had inhabited in the prior two releases. These songs have immediacy and directness. The brightness and energy of the music allowed him to address some pretty heavy subjects with out it getting preachy. 2+2=5 takes its title from Orwell’s 1984. Like all the albums starters prior to Hail to the Thief this song sets a tone for the disc. Declaring we’re back and we are going to call out what we see is going on. The song is sung with a great urgency that can not be completely explained by a dire need to go get something to eat. As Yorke has playfully suggested was the real impetus for the song. The message of the song could be no matter how much you want to ignore the world and build the sandbags high, it comes streaming in and pleading ignorance is no excuse. The song was done in one take and is executed beautifully. It was the first song on the first day of recording, and was dismissed as one off in LA, but came to have greater resonance when listen to again in their Oxford studio.
The second track Sit Down, Stand Up could have fit just as nicely on Amnesiac as it does on Hail to the Thief and acts in some ways as a bridge between the two albums. It also continued the message of 2+2=5, with the powerful continuing to bully the powerless. The little man being taken over, questioning is it really all just fate deciding whether the dice ends on a chute or a ladder? The song has a fair helping of digital goodness. It begins with a glichy intro and an otherworldly chime and then slowly builds to the explosive second third.
Sail to the Moon is the most optimistic moment in the recording. This beautiful dreamlike song was written for Yorke’s young son. It is a song of hope, and a tonic to all the despair found elsewhere on the release. It proffers the idea that one person can make a difference and every child has that potential to save us from the worst in ourselves. Yorke’s delivery is spot on in conveying that message. The band does a stellar job on the accompaniment that demanded a light hand. The song was made to sound like it was easy to play, when it was actually quite difficult. Sail to the Moon is one of the many high points on the album, a true thing of beauty.
Backdrifts is one of the four songs on the list that the band would have cut from the album. Many find that surprising, as it conveys much of the underlying theme of the record. The song speaks to how civilization was suddenly regressing into the vat of stupidity and violence it has tried to swear off. Painting a picture of the powers that be offering bread and circuses, to distract us from the fact we are all doomed, and that they have no interest in saving anyone but themselves. With its industrial sound and processed piano it is another track that could have fit seamlessly on Amnesiac.
Go to Sleep displays a stream of conscious monologue, originating from reactions to watching the news of the day. The lyric starts off with a headline and then the repeating phrase “over my dead body”. Then suggests it might be more practical to sleepwalk through life, laying down your indignation and turning to the false comfort of indifference, and the ultimately unaware state of sleep. The very folksy guitar intro shapeshifts into an electronic banquet of sorts, making for a nice contrast to the live studio sound of many of the songs on the disc.
Where I End and You Begin, is one of my all time favorite tracks from Radiohead. Colin Greenwood and Phil Selway are channeling their inner New Order on this track; Colin shines on the Thom Yorke written bass line. The lyrics can be approached in so many ways, it is lyrical ambivalence done to perfection. This song could be about lovers, parents and children, the environment, take your pick. The song is catchy as hell and I thank heavens that Nigel Godrich was able to bring this one to fruition. The entire song is genius, with Yorke’s evocative singing, the E bow effect, and the Jedi mind meld going on between Selway and Colin Greenwood on the beat.
The second song of the four songs the band says they would have cut was We Suck Young Blood. This is an unsettling song, and does kill the flow that had built from song to song on the record. However the song does deserve more merit than it has been given. We Suck Young Blood is the band’s take on LA and expands beyond that to again address the theme of the powerful taking advantage of the weak. In this situation the stardom seeking youth has the misfortune of encountering the world weary svengali looking for the next meal ticket. This song could also be read as an exorcism of the early days in Radiohead’s career when they too were hungry for the big break and willing to do almost anything to make it happen. The oscillating tempo, Yorke’s hamming “washed up actor” delivery and the discordant hand claps make for a macabre song. The saving grace for the track is the second third improvisational jazz piano. It is a “grower”, and listeners have come to appreciate it when it is given a chance. It is the weakest song on the release.
The album was almost named for the next track; The Gloaming which continues the dread that informs the album. The inspiration for the song came from Yorke obsessively listening to the 24 hour news coverage of the Iraq war on BBC. This combined with his driving down country lanes in the gloaming watching the shadows play and equating it to the creeping darkness he was witnessing envelop the world. The song presents the idea of mankind groping about in the twilight of its existence, making haphazard choices with nary a concern for the outcome. The song musically used a lock groove Jonny Greenwood had created in the studio that had intrigued Yorke. The song is haunting and hypnotic.
There There was the first single and longest released off the album. Live it is a favorite with the band and fans. Yorke was enamored with this song from its inception. He knocks it out of the park vocally. The explosion of rhythmic goodness is a thing of pure enjoyment and the guitars are amazing. Godrich was Merlin like in his production of this extraordinary track. The song itself seems to address the idea that we are our own worst enemy, accidents waiting to happen. It also addresses the idea that we have choices to make between the devil on one shoulder and the angel on the other. The song pointed out that the easy or alluring way is usually not the best choice.
The third song on the cut list is I Will. The song had been around in many incarnations as early as the Kid A sessions. The instrumentation was utilized backwards on Amnesiac’s Like Spinning Plates. The version on Hail To The Thief was very stripped back with a simple guitar and vocal with scant production effects. It is a gripping song in its intensity. The inspiration for the song came from Yorke viewing footage of a bunker of civilians being blown up during the Iraq war. The lyrics read as an oath to protect one’s own even in the face of being defenseless, vowing to fight all comers and it avers the senselessness of war. A song Yorke described as one of the angriest songs he had ever written.
The final song on the cut list is A Punch Up at A Wedding. This song was in part inspired by an “over the top” negative review Radiohead had received on their homecoming performance in Oxford. It was additionally inspired by Yorke balking at the inaccurate reporting of the press. Specifically at a G8 summit meeting that he had attended to protest. The song starts with what Jonny Greenwood has described as Yorke moaning away then morphs into emulating a Neil Young song. The engaging lyric calls out every cynical “know it all” who ignores the facts on the ground to spin a story more in keeping with a preconceived narrative. It describes the mind blowing head snap of witnessing something personally and seeing it reported as something completely different than what occurred. Out of the four songs on the band’s cut list, this is the one I totally disagree with them about; I think it fits on the record thematically as it took to task the press in all its current day biases and side choosing.
Myxomatosis continues the examination of the modern day press. It also addresses the falseness of fame. Speaking possibly to Yorke’s feeling tongue tied about really saying what he thinks. He aptly describes the frustration everyone feels when they have a crystal clear insight into something and can’t seem to express it or someone edits it out or knocks it down to size. The song is put together with individual tape sections, like bands would have had to done in the 80’s before the existence of sequencers. Each synth part was played separately onto tape and pieced together. The song is a true wonder and has a great fuzzy guitar sound that puts a real kick into the disc.
Paraphrasing Ed O Brien, Scatterbrain is a “Sunday” song as created by Radiohead. The song describes a powerful storm with images of birds thrown around and bullets for hail, the roof being pulled off by its fingernails. The song then shifts into suggesting that all the stimuli overload of the modern world leaves us scatterbrained. The lyrics go on to make the further point that the stress of the world ultimately kills us off, the final power cut, as dead leaves. Any listener familiar with Yorke’s song Analyze off of The Eraser might notice the parallel themes of the two songs. The song’s dreamy, airy feel and the outstanding vocal are a pleasurable listen.
The final song Wolf at the Door is performed in a detached vocal delivery, with a heavy dreamlike stream of conscious feel. The song contains various misfortunes, a mugging, begging for forgiveness, kidnapping, threats to your person and your family, Stepford Wives, etc. It is a frightening word salad, yet almost cleansing as it purge out all the venomous fear of life. As Yorke himself acknowledged it is quite a bitter song. Like a nightmare where you need to collect yourself as you jolt out of sleep, heart racing. The nightmare feel is emphasized with the macabre like organ at the intro and then the heartbeat waltz tempo. At the end of the album the dread is still there to deal for another day.
Hail to the Thief is Radiohead’s longest album to date with fourteen songs. I see it as the forerunner to In Rainbows. If you will a John the Baptist proclaiming that the Kid A and Amnesiac computer processed electronica and the humanity of live play were not mutually exclusive. Furthermore you could meld them together and produce something original and ground breaking. Hail to the Thief was their first attempt at trying to bring it off. In the future In Rainbows would succeed in accomplishing that desired outcome.
Hail to the Thief was a complex many layered release. The beauty of any Radiohead album is their willingness to allow the listener to interpret the lyrics their own way, as they encounter the album at different times in their life. The band has always stressed the ambivalence of the lyrics was intended. The album continued to cement the band’s reputation as brave and innovative. It was the end of the band’s obligation to a record company, which would lead to many exciting things in the future. It was a record that dared to look the world in the eye and describe what it saw. “Hail to the Thief “is an under appreciated album that deserves a more celebrated reputation.