|So the hype is over, the rumour mill has ceased, a time to stand up and be counted. No doubt you’ve read the reviews, enjoyed and equally puzzled over the pontificating of those who either come to adore and rest at the feet of Radiohead or those who have come to rock the foundations of the mystique that they have created to surround the band. You may also have already heard this album, either via a number of websites that had posted numerous variations or through saturation radio air play, it is after all along with the White Stripes ‘Elephant’ the most eagerly anticipated album of the year.
Just where you begin with this album is anyone’s guess. I personally savoured the listening experience until the day of release, not with standing the fact that I didn’t get a promo review copy, I’ve pulled away from watching any of the release build up preferring to tape / video both radio and TV interviews alike so as not to sway to opinion, I’ve even managed to avoid the non stop press coverage, and with hard earned cash stepped up to the counter to swap it for the gatefold double vinyl version, well it had to be vinyl stands to reason that it’s going to sound better, doesn’t it?
Despite the sparsely melodic excursions of both ‘Amnesiac’ and ‘Kid A’, Radiohead have and always will sound like Radiohead, a unique chemistry that inspires the whole gambit of emotions, gluttonous on melancholia and festering with anger, from the towering sonic constructions found on ‘The Bends’ the well crafted often copied, never bettered quiet / loud dynamics of ‘OK Computer’ to the edgy splintered collages dazing on ‘Amnesiac’, whatever incarnation Radiohead are still Radiohead, it’s just maybe they’ve developed to fast. It’s laudable stuff to achieve overwhelming success and then to turn everything on it’s head, in the process alienating a considerable part of the fan base, to some it may seem as sinful as the historical moment Dylan plugged in and went electro, but let’s face it would you really want rock to stagnate, development is after all critical to survival, and if anything ‘Hail to the Thief’ is a statement of survival more far reaching than the bands existence itself.
Radiohead have been talking this up as the natural successor to ‘OK Computer’, for a band who were so determined to break the mould and live in their own splendid isolation faces rigidly locked looking ahead and beyond, these statements could easily be viewed as U-turns and that by releasing the extraordinary ‘Kid A’ and ‘Amnesiac’ (for the record two releases much loved by this reviewer), can it be now that these are to be looked upon as mistakes. Not so.
‘Hail to the Thief’ provides a two fold test, firstly of the listeners willingness to move beyond the accepted notion of verse-chorus-verse pop, on the face of it seems like a hotch-botch affair, a directionless mixed bag, though however you want to view it still stands as a test to limitations much in the same way as the Beatles ‘White Album’, it doesn’t seek to rewrite the rock book, like Nirvana before them Radiohead simply re-assesses and re-evaluate melody and edge it along the evolutionary process. Secondly, it’s a barbed ‘do your best and follow this’ statement to the chasing pack, and a two fingered gesture to all those who thought they were a spent force and a sheer bloody minded exercise in putting distance between themselves and the would be’s. The trademark elegance of their earlier epics has never been more starkly apparent, they are still here sounding better than ever rubbing shoulders with their experimental offspring that now appear to be a lasting feature of the Radiohead canon. It is petulant, and with that there are the adolescent mood swings of a brutish, sullen teenager at work throughout, when it’s awkward it’s impenetrable, difficult and resolute, but when it’s loving it’s tender, passionate and carefree.
Opening with the cynicism and fighting talk gestures of ‘2+2=5’ you are immediately sucked in to Yorke’s despair, a direct finger pointing message to the ignorant and the apathetic, melody wise beginning gracefully as if serenading before being vanquished in a haze of vicious fusion as Yorke vents his anger with the Greenwood’s, O’Brien and Selway providing the ammunition. ‘Sit down, stand up’ like it’s title suggests is a confused and indecisive composition that ducks between styles with agitated restlessness, draped in a bludgeon like stuck in the groove drone pastiche that you’d imagine even the cutting edge crews at Fat Cat and Warp raising a disapproving tut tut at. ‘Sail to the Moon’ closes side one in towering cinematic style, piano led classical symphonies and haunting arcs coalesce to provide a tear jerking futility, perhaps one of Radiohead’s finest moments, simply for the way it can all at once warm and caress, yet chill and scare with equal slight of hand.
‘Go to sleep’ belies a push pull rustic folk effect that comes across almost like an incantation before loosening up for a brief blues spell. ‘Where I end and you begin’ with it’s chunky throbbing bass line and spinning electronics bears slight resemblance in the initial stages to Simple Minds ‘Theme for Great Cities’, displaying an invigorating white funk sound clash all bathed in angelic echoes.
The three tracks that follow in succession and make up side three are where the band achieve their most lucid peak and were there’s a sense of change in the air. ‘We suck your blood’ will I’m sure encourage the lighter waving brigade and shedding of tears, so painfully heavy it almost cracks beneath the weight of it’s own tragedy, a sublime interplay between the dragging piano and the ghostly harmonies that it almost reads like a death ballad and both aligned to Yorke’s fragile tones, the oppressive gloom ridden mood very briefly obliterated by a moment of impromptu abrasive high jinks. ‘The Gloaming’ doesn’t so much strut as stick, sounding like it’s caught in the groove generating an alienated pulsing thread that’s almost void like. ‘There there’ the current single with it’s gentle rise and fall arrangements courts an exotic texture and a surprisingly uplifting chiming clockwork weave from Greenwood.
The clouds clear and daylight eases through on the vibrantly funky sounding ‘A punch up at a wedding’, which acts as the albums loosest limbed offering and almost mirrors the more laid back moments of Floyd’s ‘Another brick in the Wall’. ‘Myxomatosis’ cleverly pulls the threads working the electronic arrangements to their best capabilities to provide a stuttering glacial laden answer to the current electro-clash movement. Difficult indeed but my favoured cut is the hollow treatment rendered to the spectral ‘Scatterbrain’, delicately wayward, tumbling chords flow ghost like with muted optimism, just beautiful. Ending with the quick fire Dylan-esque pick a target, take aim and fire sloganeering of ‘A Wolf at the Door’. Nuf said.
In the final analysis, ‘Hail to the Thief’ is an obtuse collection bearing contrasting spectacles, but did you expect anything less, an album that struggles with indecision between Yorke’s unfathomable vision of a sonic utopia and the bands desire for certainty of their place in that great master plan. Accessible? no, but then neither was ‘OK Computer’ on initial hearing. Essential? A stupid question. ‘Hail to the Thief’ is the bands most comprehensive and realised long player to date, you may not thank them now, but when the dust has settled this will stand the test of time.
Now your paying attention.