FEATURE: Alternative Classics: Radiohead – Hail to the Thief




Alternative Classics


Radiohead – Hail to the Thief


I was going to include Radiohead’s album...

 IN THIS PHOTO: Radiohead’s Thom Yokre in Dublin in 2003/PHOTO CREDIT: John Spinks

Amnesiac into this piece but, looking at their back catalogue closely, I feel Hail to the Thief not only brims with quality and great moments but it was overlooked by many critics. There are, debatably, a few albums in the Radiohead cannon that can be considered classic and timeless – including Kid A (2000), OK Computer (1997) and The Bends (1995). By the time Hail to the Thief arrived in 2003, the band were immersed in a more Electronic sound. Maybe Kid A was more overtly Electronic than Hail to the Thief but Radiohead, on Hail to the Thief, mixed their traditional Rock backbone with their new phase. Hail to the Thief moves on from the styles of Kid A and Amnesiac (2001) and has an angry, more direct sound. That said...there is experimentation and shifts in mood right through the record. The band recorded most of the album in a couple of weeks with producer Nigel Godrich in Los Angeles. Hail to the Thief has a live sound and that is something Radiohead and Godrich wanted to achieve – rather than the overdubs and more rehearsed sound of earlier records. Thom Yokre was inspired by the War on Terror when writing the lyrics and right-wing politics in the West. A lot of political records fail because they are unfocused and lack genuine bite but, rather than this being a protest album, Hail to the Thief is not overtly-political and manages to mix tenderness and oblique subjects with deftness.


Coming from Kid A and Amnesiac, the band wanted to head in a new direction. Then, the band spent so much time in the studio manufacturing the music and editing. It was what was necessary to get the sound they wanted but there was a yearning towards the more immediate and urgent sound they had cemented prior to Kid A. Having spent so much effort and time on computers and being very precise, it was necessary for the band to work quickly on their next album. The sense of urgency and immediacy is obvious on Hail to the Thief. Yorke did not have time to rewrite lyrics and, whilst he did use methods employed for the previous two records (cutting up words and randomly mixing them), this process was a lot faster and more exciting. One can imagine the band being quite strained and tense with one another having recorded Kid A and Amnesiac – the amount of time and focus needed would have tested their friendships. In fact, this must have been the case with OK Computer in 1997. Hail to the Thief, happily, is an album where you can hear a more relieved and natural Radiohead; not slavishly processing, editing and tweaking – Hail to the Thief sounds like a very free and fresh revelation. Some songs (such as 2 + 2 = 5) were recorded very quickly whereas others (like There There) took more time to cement.

The band used sub-titles for the tracks so opener 2 + 2 = 5 had (The Lukewarm) beside it; Sit down. Stand up. had (Snakes & Ladders) alongside it. I cannot think of a Radiohead album with a more potent and memorable one-two – a perfect way to kick things open and get under the skin! One reason why I think Hail to the Thief should be regarded as a classic is the way it fuses lyrics and music. I think a lot of the themes the band were writing about back then – panic following the 2000 U.S. election where George W. Bush triumphed; the War on Terror – are relevant today and one cannot say the fear and paranoia has subsided. Even though there is a different (even more stupid) President ruling, we can take so much from Hail to the Thief and apply it to 2019. Yorke was not intending to write anything political but, surrounded by such mess and chaos, it was inevitable the album would be seen as such and it would be dubbed political. Yorke was a father of an infant sum so you get the nice balance of tense and loving. Songs such as Sail to the Moon have a real sense of emotion, protection and charm that juxtaposes Hail to the Thief’s more electric and nervy moments. A Wolf at the Door’s sinister verses and the anger on I Will show you Radiohead (Yorke especially) were in a state where they were fusing all the energy around them into the music. 2003 was a tense time for the world and many were uncertain how things would pan out.


 IN THIS PHOTO: Long-term Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich helmed Hail to the Thief/PHOTO CREDIT: Kristy Sparow/WireImage

Radiohead would take their Alternative/Art-Rock sound in another direct by the time they released In Rainbows in 2008 but this was a record that featured less digital manipulation and sort of returned to the conventions of their earlier works. There are dark themes on Hail to the Thief but the band felt the acoustic sounds and Pop elements outweighed any gloom. Clearly, there are many shades and sounds that makes Hail to the Thief so rich and rewarding. Even if songs like We Suck Young Blood were dismissed by some critics – Yorke felt the song was a bit of a laugh and was more a slave ship tune – it showed Radiohead were taking risks and could not be predicted. I love nearly everything on the album and think only The Gloaming is dispensable. Unlike a lot of earlier Radiohead albums where one felt the promotion was part of the process the band did not enjoy, Hail to the Thief was a different matter! By April 2003, posters spoofing talent recruitment posters appeared in Los Angeles and London. Slogans taken from the album appeared and there was this distinct look and feel to the campaign. Radiohead would experiment with promotional angles for In Rainbow but this was the first time where they were getting really involved and doing something different. In many ways, Hail to the Thief sounds like an alternative, sane political party against the terror and fear promoted by the U.S. President (and other leaders) around the time.

Nearly every Radiohead album is a belter and most of them are pretty instant. Hail to the Thief is a more complex album and one that reveals its true beauty through time. Maybe critics were rash when reviewing and those who gave it mediocre acclaim needed more time with it. Despite some mixed reviews, the album was greeted with acclaim and most critics got on board. Pitchfork, writing in 2003, has this to say:

For its moments of gravity and excellence, Hail to the Thief is an arrow, pointing toward the clearly darker, more frenetic territory the band have up to now only poked at curiously. Experimentation fueled the creativity that gave us Kid A and Amnesiac, but that's old hat to Radiohead, who are trying-- and largely succeeding-- in their efforts to shape pop music into as boundless and possible a medium as it should be. Without succumbing to dilettantism, they continue to absorb and refract simpler posits from the underground, ideas that are usually satisfied to wallow in their mere novelty. The syncretic mania of Radiohead continues unabated, and though Hail to the Thief will likely fade into their catalog as a slight placeholder once their promissory transformation is complete, most of us will long cherish the view from this bridge”.

IN THIS PHOTO: Radiohead at Oxford’s Canned Appluase in 2006/PHOTO CREDIT: John Spinks

AllMusic, writing in 2012, provided their thoughts:

The spook-filled "Sail to the Moon," one of several songs featuring prominent piano, rivals "Street Spirit" and hovers compellingly without much sense of force carrying it along. Somewhat ironically, minus a handful of the more conventionally structured songs, the album would be almost as fractured, remote, and challenging as Amnesiac. "Backdrifts" and "The Gloaming" feature nervous electronic backdrops, while the emaciated "We Suck Young Blood" is a laggard processional that, save for one outburst, shuffles along uneasily. At nearly an hour in length, this album doesn't unleash the terse blow delivered by its two predecessors. However, despite the fact that it seems more like a bunch of songs on a disc rather than a singular body, its impact is substantial. Regardless of all the debates surrounding the group, Radioheadhave entered a second decade of record-making with a surplus of momentum”.

If some felt Hail to the Thief lacked substance in 2003, I wonder whether the sixteen years since will change minds. I think some of the compositions were quite bold and different to what people expected from Radiohead. Future albums have changed things and I feel perceptions will be different if critics approached Hail to the Thief today. There is so much to love on the record. From the jittery opening two tracks to the sublime and transcendent beauty of There There – where Thom Yorke, after hearing it back, burst into tears -; it is a record that rewards patience and an open mind.

The fact Radiohead escaped the more monotonous process of Kid A and Amnesiac and returned to a happier state is evident when you listen to Hail to the Thief. They would carry that energy into future albums and I think Hail to the Thief was an important turning point. Down the line, Yorke said he would have changed the track listing and switched a few around; Nigel Godrich felt there were a few too many songs and it could have been edited closer. If Godrich feels it is his least favourite of the Radiohead albums, one cannot deny the weight and importance of Hail to the Thief. I feel the track order is fine and the opening two tracks are perfect. Maybe tracks six-through-eight (where there is a bit more gloom and a certain darkness) could have been broken up but I contest the assertion there are too many tracks. Everything has its place and I love the complete feel and texture of Hail to the Thief. I feel, as time elapses, the words and messages through the album become more relevant and, sadly, that might always be the case. The world is more divided and scared than it was in 2003 and I am listening to Hail to the Thief for inspiration and guidance. Whether it is the anger and tension on some songs or the serenity and grace on others, I feel fresh ears and eyes need to head the way of Hail to the Thief. It may not warrant the same genius-like tags of Kid A and OK Computer but, to me, Hail to the Thief is the perfect opener to this...

ALTERNATIVE Classics segment.