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Saturday, February 17, 2018

Radiohead: Hail To The Thief


1) 2 x 2 = 5 (The Lukewarm); 2) Sit Down, Stand Up (Snakes & Ladders); 3) Sail To The Moon (Brush The Cobwebs Out Of The Sky); 4) Backdrifts (Honeymoon Is Over); 5) Go To Sleep (Little Man Being Erased); 6) Where I End And You Begin (The Sky Is Falling In); 7) We Suck Young Blood (Your Time Is Up); 8) The Gloaming (Softly Open Our Mouths In The Cold); 9) There There (The Boney King Of Nowhere); 10) I Will (No Man's Land); 11) A Punchup At A Wedding (No No No No No No No No); 12) Myxomatosis (Judge, Jury & Executioner); 13) Scatterbrain (As Dead As Leaves); 14) A Wolf At The Door (It Girl. Rag Doll).

General verdict: No better way to fight The Enemy than weep into your sleeve to a bunch of MOR grooves, eh?

Some of the readers might suspect that my falling out with Radiohead, rapidly accelerating since Kid A, is simply due to an organic «rockist» rejection of electronic textures. But just as it was never a sin for somebody like, say, Pete Townshend to immerse himself in the magic of the syn­thesizer after years of playing Guitar God, so Radiohead's transition to a new type of sound was never a sin in and out of itself. And if all sorts of pop bands, from Portishead to Broadcast, could organically and emotionally integrate analog and digital, why couldn't Thom Yorke and his bunch of gloomy progressives?

Hail To The Thief is usually discussed in the context of Radiohead taking a wary step back, and reintegrating their dashing achievements with some of the more traditional elements of a rock band, so you might want to make the prediction that my assessment of this «comeback» would be more positive. And you'd be right — at the very least, it is certainly an improvement over the killing-me-bluntly, bored-robot-on-pension atmospheres of Amnesiac. But... not by much. Alas, the miracle has not happened. OK Computer was a balloon full of hot air; Kid A was the same balloon with a freshly punched hole; Amnesiac was the aftermath of the punching; and with Hail To The Thief, it kind of sounds as if they were trying to re-inflate the balloon, but forgetting to patch up the hole before doing so.

Like many other records of the same period, Hail To The Thief was inspired by the rise of neo-conservatism, Bushism, Iraq war etc. — art tends to thrive in and on hard times. Whether this inspiration truly matters is, however, debatable: Radiohead had been a gloomy, pessimistic team from day one, and it is dubious that their OK Computer-era vision of the world could be signi­ficantly exacerbated by ongoing events. At the very least, if you listen to all their records in a row outside of historical context, I doubt that Hail To The Thief will elicit any kind of "oh, now they are really sad and pissed off!" reaction. Actually, I'd even like to forget about this myself, because it is very difficult and unnatural for me to think of Radiohead as a «protest band». The artistic persona of Thom Yorke is not that of a protester — it is that of an anguished weeper, and I'd rather have him weep in anguish over global causes than picking local ones.

But fine, let us accept that contemporary events at least gave the band some fresh food for artistic thought, and even pulled them out of a bit of songwriting rut in which they'd found themselves after Kid A. How are they cooking that food? Sure, Hail To The Thief is a complex, multi-layered record that has a little bit of everything that used to make Radiohead great or at least intriguing. But everything that there is here has already been done before — and better. For all my reservations about Kid A / Amnesiac, the band was pushing forward there, astounding their fans with results that nobody could have foreseen. Hail To The Thief, in comparison, clearly marks the waterline where Radiohead slid off the cutting edge.

Not that they had any obligations: after all, you could say the same thing about The Beatles after Sgt. Pepper, because, frankly, how much cutting edge is there in the White Album? It's just a collection of very good songs, that's all, certainly nowhere near the level of musical innovation seen in contemporary Hendrix, Zappa, or Led Zeppelin releases. And so it was with Radiohead: after a groundbreaking streak extending from The Bends to Kid A, they could certainly allow themselves to just relax and write songs the way those songs came into their heads, without giving much of a damn about whether they were still stretching out to new horizons or not. But this also means that the songs have to be... well, you know. And are they?

As we get into the sphere of the personal, I am sorry to say that, once again, not a single one of these tunes does anything for me except being «listenable» and «atmospheric». Soft or hard, light or heavy, sentimental or aggressive, the music on Hail To The Thief altogether gives the impres­sion of pale-shadow-afterthoughts to everything that came before it. All the ingredients are there; they simply never come together in a satisfactory manner. Doing a song-by-song run­through would be too painful; I will simply illustrate the feelings (or, rather, lack thereof) on a few select examples, starting with the album's four singles.

ʽThere There (The Boney King Of Nowhere)ʼ was the first out, probably because of its slightly tribal groove and heavy emphasis on the guitars. Said to be influenced by Can, Siouxsie & The Banshees, and the Pixies, it is a stuttery, heavily syncopated rocker that has neither the precision and ruthlessness of Can, nor the theatricality and aggressive energy of Siouxsie, nor the humor and absurdity of the Pixies. The grumbly, repetitive guitar riff is a poorly adapted companion to Yorke's nasal falsetto (as an example of how such things are done right, take Tom Waits' ʽGoing Out Westʼ which boasts a slightly similar percussive groove, but where everything clicks because all the instruments and vocals are in tune with each other); the vocal part lacks any interesting dynamic shifts (a.k.a. «hooks»); and by the time the song kicks into high gear, with Greenwood letting loose some of his guitar demons in classic Bends mode, my lack of interest has become so total that the effort is wasted — too bad, because some of those climactic guitar overdubs kick notarially certified ass.

The second single was a return to acoustic form — ʽGo To Sleepʼ, alternating between 4/4 and 6/4 to take the fun out of your toe-tapping, is a bass-heavy neo-folk freakout with a clearly spelled out political message ("we don't want the loonies taking over"). We certainly do not, but instead of putting the loonies to sleep, it nearly succeeds to do the same thing for me — the guitar melody of the song is repetitive, monotonous, and bluntly refuses to employ any variations or flourishes that would deviate it from the formula; and try as he may, but Thom Yorke has spent so much time whining that when the need finally arises to send out a few angry barks, he cannot mobilize the necessary resources for this.

So perhaps the opening number, ʽ2 x 2 = 5 (The Lukewarm)ʼ, released as the third single, might remedy the situation? Hardly. Its opening melody is played in a fairly typical picking style for Radiohead (think ʽStreet Spiritʼ); midway through, it becomes a heated-up alt-rocker with para­noid overtones, but never properly picks up steam because the acoustic basis does not allow it to, and also because Yorke's "you have not been payin' attention" bit is ugly as hell. Not desperate, not thunderous, not aggressive — at best, you can take it as part of his «mental patient» persona, and I just don't feel that he is as credible in it as he is in his «desperate romantic» guise. ʽLuke­warmʼ is a perfect subtitle for it — lukewarm it is, as is everything else on the album.

ʽA Punchup At A Weddingʼ was the fourth (promotional) single, and it is probably the best of the four, but that is not saying much. There is a meaty, blues-based bass / piano groove at the heart of the song, but it does not go anywhere in particular (other than being reinforced with somewhat comically-sounding heavy guitar «grunts» midway through) and, once again, offers nothing by way of vocal hooks other than a few more examples of Thom's familiar falsetto. Worst thing is, there is nothing truly punchy about this song. The lyrics sound like they want to tear George W. Bush and his friends a new one — "you had to piss on our parade... hypocrite opportunist, don't infect me with your poison" — but the music has no energy, bite, or venom to it whatsoever. Perhaps if they were willing to go along with this funky spirit, they should have, you know, invited some actual funk session musicians to play on it? Because the song just drags.

I do believe that is enough for now, because I could probably write up similar impressions for any other song on here. Some have industrial overtones (ʽMyxomatosisʼ), some are purely atmo­spheric ballads (ʽWe Suck Young Bloodʼ — actually, that song has at least some symbolic value, because Thom's terminally-ill delivery emphasizes the ridiculousness of the situation in which the old and obsolete feed on the hopes and futures of the newer generations; still lethargic, though); all share such common values as feebly depressed mood, repetitive sonic patterns, lack of vocal hooks, and a feeling of «I've heard this before, and it used to be much better».

It does feel more cohesive and purposeful than Amnesiac, and it has a smaller percentage of songs about which I openly wish that they'd never corrupted the fabric of space and time. But a small part of me even secretly wishes that it would be crazier than Amnesiac — with an album like this, active hatred might even be preferable to bored indifference. Hail to the new Radiohead, the only band in existence endorsing musical sleeping pills as a weapon against The System.

Those who have accepted the endorsement will be sleepily happy to know that the expanded version of Hail To The Thief (2009) adds a few B-sides (such as the humorously titled ʽPaperbag Writerʼ — unfortunately, just as comatose as all its better known brethren), as well as the entire Com Lag EP from 2004, which includes some remixed and live versions of Thief numbers. No separate review will be provided for this entity, for understandable reasons.


  1. "OK Computer was a balloon full of hot air; Kid A was the same balloon with a freshly punched hole; Amnesiac was the aftermath of the punching; and with Hail To The Thief, it kind of sounds as if they were trying to re-inflate the balloon, but forgetting to patch up the hole before doing so." My God... he's killed them

  2. Have you explained somewhere why you've abandoned the ABC (of artist) order of the reviews? These new reviews are a lot more vitriolic. This album is mediocre at best but perhaps you're losing whatever joy you may have still had for writing reviews.

    1. No, it's okay. Merely a coincidence that late period Radiohead and Sufjan Stevens albums go hand in hand. On the other hand, we are approaching the golden years of King Crimson and Pink Floyd.

    2. Joy Division seemed to make him pretty happy.

    3. I think the prospect of listening to XXX more Chicago albums III times each made him run screaming from the alphabetical order. I was really looking forward to the teens reviews too.

    4. Joy Division makes everyone happy. That's kind of their 'thing.'

  3. Ah yes, the "Fuck You Bush" album...

  4. 2 + 2 = 5, not 2 x 2. Come on, I know you've read Orwell too.