Underappreciated Albums #2: Radiohead – Hail To The Thief (2003)


NME: 7/10 (“a good rather than a great record”)

The Guardian: 3/5 (“Its bleakness – expressed in fragmentary, elliptical lyrics – seems to hold the album back”)

Q: 7/10 (“comes dangerously close to being all experimentalism and precious little substance”)

Blender: 6/10 (“like an hour-long sigh”)

3.73 on Rate Your Music (Artist average = 3.77)

Radiohead don’t make concept albums. They make thematic ones, showing off the album unit as individual parts connected by interweaving ideas to a greater extent than most of their competitors. Hail To The Thief is arguably their greatest achievement in this regard. Fairy tales, mythical creatures, childhood fables, vampires, genies, rabbits, sirens, and wolves all make appearances. The album uses the language of imagination, myth and story-telling while offering a contentious title which, despite the band’s protestations, is about as politically direct as they come. This thematic unity is my defence against some of the criticisms of the album, then and now; it is schizophrenic (even by Radiohead’s standards), rushed, lacking identity in comparison to its genre-defining brethren, What would make it a concept album would be to try too hard and write a libretto for the music, rather than allowing the songs to spark off each other with respectful distance for their own status as individual units. One could imagine another band grappling with the same ideas and coming up with a frame narrative of a bedtime story, with interludes and other production tricks in the place of compelling material that found unity through its own artistic strength. The album’s original title was The Gloaming, meaning the period before sunset, and that has a metaphorical application referring to the point just before sleep – Yorke described the album’s structure as working in this manner, with ‘A Wolf At The Door’ as waking up to the realisation that reality is even worse in a piece of typically Yorkean cynicism. There’s a microaudience of Yorke’s son Noah, who prompted feelings of generational accountability in his father, and a macroaudience of the world at large, being lulled into paralysis by ignorance and fear.

It has my favourite album artwork from Stanley Donwood – compressing Yorke’s technique of manipulating other people’s soundbites into a purely visual form. The cover is based on a street map of Los Angeles. The greens are carefully placed to capture your attention which, in conjunction with the bluish sky above, give the impression of flying above the patchwork quilt of an English landscape. Or maybe the collage quality is a nod to Elmer the Patchwork Elephant, one of many children’s’ fiction characters that lurk around the periphery of the album. That sort of vastly abstracted impression of English scenery – like what Andrew Marvell called ‘a green thought’, albeit in a black rather than a green shade, as Stanley Donwood uses colours taken from the petrochemical industry – accompany the intensely vivid and non-specific pastoral locales invoked by the album, which oscillate between dream and reality, between a chance to escape political control and an acquiescence to simplified neoconservative rhetoric. Listen to the penultimate track ‘Scatterbrain’, where the first line of the song has Yorke’s vocal notes rise with ‘I’m walking out’, into what you expect to be a contemplative walk beloved in the English poetic tradition, before they are see-sawed down again with the shuddering ‘in a force ten gale’.

For once the band tried to avoid tampering with the live quality of their sound, recording a song per day in sessions in Los Angeles, hoping to circumvent the arguments that had threatened to tear the band apart when it came to editing and sequencing Kid A. Accordingly there is a last hurrah for the straight-up rocker in their songbook, from ‘2+2=5’, – a bonsai ‘Paranoid Android’ – through the tight guitar work on ‘Go To Sleep’, to the snaking crescendo of ‘There There’.

The album is full of stylistic throwbacks. ‘Where I End And You Begin’ is a swampy Joshua Tree style giant, with Jonny’s Ondes Martenot filling in for The Edge’s infinite guitar. I remember reading Pitchfork’s review of The Bends re-release where they described ‘Planet Telex’ as the first song that could have been released on any of their albums; ‘Where I End And You Begin’ may be their last song which could have nestled onto Pablo Honey, though the disaffection of an unrequited love in ‘Creep’ has morphed into 21st century Yorke’s cannibalistic urges (cf. ‘Knives Out’) to ‘eat you alive’. ‘Go To Sleep’ kicks off with a rootsy, Americana guitar riff that is accompanied by Yorke’s rather caustic attempt at a blues refrain, a refreshing song to listen to now, when the eight years of using America and its politicians as a punchline has given way to a pinnacle of untouchable liberal cool. Before that, Bush Jr followed in Regan’s wake in appropriating a particular image of rugged American nationalism, which is satirised in ‘Go To Sleep’, one of the band’s most underrated songs. Yorke in the song becomes a Rip Van Winkle mark 2, this time escaping from the Iraq War rather than the American War of Independence. Jonny Greenwood’s Max/MSP solo at the end is sometimes treated as a gimmick – and its strangely low place in the mix doesn’t do much to deter that assumption – but is one of their best sonic artefacts, a real crystallisation of the band’s themes of the self ripped apart by greater forces, to the point of possible insanity. Much is made of the album’s ‘raw’ quality but there is still the same sensitive awareness of the music’s status as a recorded entity; the first sound heard on the album is of a guitar being plugged in, and the last line of the last verse in closer ‘A Wolf At The Door’ is an anguished request to ‘turn the tape off’.

As well as looking backwards, there is innovation too: ‘A Wolf At The Door’ has Yorke give a demented spoken word-cum-rap-cum-singing performance, the vocal equivalent of Jonny Greenwood’s corrupted exit stage right at the end of ‘Go To Sleep’. It’s so wonderfully fitting of his lyrical style it’s a wonder he hasn’t recaptured it again. ‘Skip Divided’ comes close but is more melodic and too clubby, without the fractured angst of 2003. ‘Myxomatosis’ is the band at their most overdriven, the ‘swagger’ that Ed O’Brien talked about in recording the album disintegrating into a shabby, leprotic mass.

With what has happened to Radiohead since, Hail To The Thief seems like not just the end of their EMI years, but also the closing chapter in their tetchy rocktronica period before The Eraser gave Thom Yorke a platform to make his music to become weirdly sexy, with Colin Greenwood letting his soul influences really flow into his bass playing for the first time, taking Phil Selway with him. Occasionally the mantras on Hail to the Thief can get repetitive to the point of banality (‘Sit Down. Stand Up.’ can lose its inherent tension after so many listens), and it is hard to disagree with the band’s sentiment that the album is simply too long and would have benefited from more rigorous mixing (‘A Punchup At A Wedding’ doesn’t need to be there, and ‘We Suck Young Blood’ could be punchier). The passing of time has helped Hail To The Thief in one way though, as the initial concerns that Radiohead had directed their creative energy into making a petulant protest album has ossified into something closer to what Jonny Greenwood diagnoses within the album, simply ‘what it feels like to be around in 2003’. The album is as a memento from the front line of a paranoid time.


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