June 14, 2003

Radiohead "Hail To The Thief"

Please forgive us for taking the time to discuss this record. I personally take a bit of pride in avoiding such massive, hyped-up releases that are lovingly praised in the independent media. Personally, I'm going to use the peer-pressure card and say that everyone else is doing it, but they're not saying it quite the way I'd like it to be said. And as I'm more concerned that music be described accurately than to be dismissed outright, I'm going to give you my two farthings on this album. It's not as bad as people are making it out to be, and I really do believe that people are being way too hard on this record, so I feel it's my duty to share with you my thoughts on Hail to the Thief.

Let's forget everything from 1996 and beyond. Let's forget about how OK Computer became one of THOSE albums, one that will always be a notch in pop culture's bedpost, the John Holmes of the 1990s, giving everybody an emotional orgasm, leaving listeners all over the world spent, gasping for air and moaning "genius...genius..." That album seemed to change everything in the music industry. All of a sudden it became fashionable to compare other albums and bands to OK Computer, and I'll even admit that I've been guilty of that particular crime. On the day it was released, millions of high-school guitar students and fratboy college bands decided they no longer wanted to be the next Nirvana or Pearl Jam--and the world has never been the same.

Apparently, this utterly-worldwide success really stuck under Thom Yorke's craw, and rightfully so. He became hyped as a genius in a frenzy not seen since Brian Wilson, and from the reports and his apparent "attitude," this did not make him happy. He's merely mortal and he didn't like the godlike stature. Understandable. In an extremely smart move, he decided to do what I'm sure nobody else would have done--refused to try to make an album that would follow-up or continue down that OK path. Hence, Kid A, a record that was just so un-Radiohead that it confounded people--myself included. It just wasn't very good. It could have been saved, if it wasn't for the fact that Thom didn't want anything to do with guitar music. It was an utter bore, and a disappointment. Amnesiac was released a little bit later; recorded at the same time as Kid A, it was said to be the "pop" album that would have been the natural follow-up to OK Computer, but it too was most definitely Kid A's sister, and suffered from the same boring gene. (A puzzling live album, I Might Be Wrong, featured live renditions of songs from just those two albums, and it surely shows that the band could've done something totally better with these albums).

Well, my friends, it's 2003, and Hail To The Thief is here, and it's about time that they released a decent follow-up to 1995's The Bends. Much like their past two efforts, this isn't a follow-up to OK Computer. Methinks that Yorke has realized that he's never going to make a decent follow-up, and so he's simply stopped trying. Good for him, because I'm sure that such an attempt would destroy him. It almost did. It would be wrong to compare this one to that one, anyway, because it's three albums ago, and you gotta move forward with your life--and Radiohead have clearly moved on. Why haven't you?

It's quite obvious from listen number one that Yorke's over his Warp Records fascination. While there certainly are moments of spicy electronica (such as the lovely "Backdrifts"), they never really fall guilty of imitation. Oh, the guitars are back, too, and they've reunited with a little something I call "melody." Good thing, too, because I was starting to worry that they'd become addicted to the indulgence of self-loving. Besides, I was beginning to wonder if Ed O'Brien and Philip Selway would ever get to play their instruments again. I'm perhaps most fond of the lovely, sad "Sail to the Moon," because of the lovely way that the pianos and guitars combine--it sounds like a long-lost Cocteau Twins riff, and Yorke has never sounded better, too.

See, Radiohead shine brightest when they actually sound like a band--and it's been a long, long time since they've sounded so...united. They sound like a band again, and that's perhaps the greatest thing to say about Hail To The Thief. They've been working out, too, because every song on here is a lot stronger and tougher than...well, you know what. Yorke still sounds like Thom Yorke, and it was certainly nice of him to allow his band to sound like themselves, too. After listening to their last two records, I never would have guessed that they would have produced such wonderful numbers as "We Suck Young Blood" or "2+2=5."

None of the songs on Hail to the Thief really contain any of Radiohead's super-catchy hooks, and that's okay. Perhaps this is a concession to their previous experiments; maybe they didn't really intend on making hooky music, because they're afraid of what happened in the past. It's okay, because the music is still wonderful, even if you have to accept it on the band's terms, and that's not to say that their music is purposfully difficult, either. Somewhere along the way, they realized that they needed to let the fans come to the music, instead of making music to bring in the fans. In an odd way, the one song that does have the overt hook, "There There," seems to reek of effort, and it's the only low point of the album.

Is this a concept album? Who knows. Better yet, who cares? Sure, there are moments that make you go, "Hmmmm, I really wonder what old Yorkie's talkin' about here," but is it really our place to judge a man's music and his words? Yeah, yeah, I know, I'm supposed to be a critic and judge these things on their merit, but, hey, sometimes a cigar is only a phallic symbol, you know. And, yeah, I'm aware that "Myxomatosis" has a line that should be commented on: "'Now no one likes a smart arse'/'But we all like stars'/That wasn't my intention/I did it for a reason." I'm just gonna let you decide and form your own opinion on that one. But, really, could you blame Yorke for saying what he's saying?

Radiohead is still one of the best bands around, even if it took them eight years to properly release a follow-up to The Bends. Stop whining about how it doesn't sound the way you'd like it to sound--it's their band, not yours, and this is the record they made. Deal with it. Love it. Don't download it. Enjoy it, it's beautiful. It's a wonderful experience, holding this record in your hands, putting it on your stereo, and looking at the wonderful cover art. (I'd recommend going for the limited edition, with the big booklet and poster. It's pretty, well, you know, typical Radiohead cover art.) In the end, tt's good to know that Yorke and company still have it in them. Not many bands from their era still do, you know.

--Joseph Kyle

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