Oh hail to the thief!
Oh hail to the thief! / But I’m not!
But I’m not!”
Well that about sums it up. Thieves, all of them: Coldplay, Travis, Idlewild, Interpol.
They all put out a sound that Radiohead gave us with The Bends and OK Computer. Now, with Radiohead’s sixth studio release, Hail to the Thief , all of those listenable, robber bands look like a bunch of chumps.
The Oxford quintet’s last two albums — Kid A and Amnesiac — were on the “quirky” side of things. Kid A was such an effort out of the unknown that it even spawned the phrase, “They’re pulling a Kid A,” to describe any band that decides to dabble on the experimental side of music. With HTTT, we see Radiohead somewhat return to form.
The opening track, “2 + 2 = 5,” throws the listener the arpeggio guitars and maxed-out climax that Radiohead made a norm for most music to come out of England for the subsequent five years. You should think of it as a taking back. It’s immediately reminiscent of the band’s greatest moments, yet hauntingly better and groundbreaking in some indefinable way.
The X-factor, like always, is lead singer Thom Yorke’s voice. It’s arguably the best voice in popular music today, because of its ability move from the spoken rant to the Herculean falsetto without effort. And it’s gotten better.
Just on that first track when Yorke starts high and ends low with the quote that started this review, you know that Radiohead is back — back from over indulgence in creative quirkiness; back from hating that commercial machine that they have to depend on to get their music out. Ironically, Parlaphone and Capitol Records probably can’t wipe their watering mouths fast enough with the release of this album.
The first single off the album “There, There,” follows a down-the-middle song formula that demands radio play. It opens with an infectious drumbeat and even includes a distinguishable guitar solo. This is not to say that Radiohead has made concessions in its creative wanderings. Rather, they have been able to stay focused on making a set of pop songs that they could live with — all in the relative sense of course — we’re not talking Justin Timberlake pop here (although rumor is, he’s a big fan).
Yorke continues his lyrical eccentricity, taking familiar phrases and singing life into them. “We’d be a walking disaster,” and “We are accidents waiting to happen,” are moved around in “There, There.” The title of the thirteenth track, “Scatterbrain,” is itself an eaffair with colloquial slang.
We also see hints of influence from Radiohead’s contemporaries. “Scatterbrain,” itself is connected to Thomas Pynchon’s novel V. “Go to Sleep,” is an R. E. M.-esque tune with the most prominent acoustic guitar on the album. It harks back to the tour that the two bands did together, circa 1996, and conjures up the Georgia trio’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi and Up. “Sail to the Moon,” shows signs from Yorke’s collaboration with songstress P. J. Harvey. There is also the obligatory Beatles White Album influence on songs like “A Wolf at the Door,” and “I Will.”
I know what you’re thinking. How come bands influenced by Radiohead are labeled thieves, and Radiohead themselves are simply a group that is “influenced”? The reason is, Hail to the Thief is still distinctly Radiohead. This mix of guitar effects with computer effects, drum kit beats with drum machine beats, and lyrical vagueness with overt anxiety are a dynasty that the band has laid out and finally can exploit. Hail to them. Not to the thieves.