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Much like the 2000 US presidential elections decided by the courts; the perception of Radiohead as having been ‘stolen’ from all that made them so important still lingers. The cold, hallucinogenic deconstruction of their superstardom by stripping away guitars and avoiding all concepts of ‘convention’ has been refined however, and on their sixth studio album we find Radiohead at a myriad of crossroads.
Opener, ‘2+2=5’ recalls the Orwellian theme of ‘liberty’ from ‘1984’ (‘the freedom to say 2+2=4…’) through an astounding blend of tempering electronica and feverish guitar explosions, evoking blissful memories of ‘Paranoid Android’/’My Iron Lung’. It sets the scene for the rest of the record and sees Radiohead finally tying themselves to the times; with one foot back in the progressive grounds of futuristic rock music, and the other still dabbling with little black boxes. Eminem obviously forgot that Moby isn’t the only high profile Techno fan.
As ever, Thom Yorke can’t decide if he’s travelling to heaven in a row boat or to hell in a burning car, but where previous records wore implicit messages under their nursery rhyme melodies and glittering poetry, from its name alone this record stands as a bold political statement. From a band as commercially lucrative and with such a American fanbase as Radiohead, the significance is immeasurable.
Where the playground taunts of ‘Knives Out’ fizzed randomly out of Yorke’s nightmares, similarly, much of ‘HTTT’ evokes visions of a songwriter marooned in front of sound-bite spouting news channels during the record’s inception in pre-war LA. This explodes into a bold message of anti-authoritarian dissatisfaction. From the subversive, ‘Big Brother command mocking’ wryness of ‘Sit Down, Stand Up’; to the rousing acoustic entrée of ‘Go To Sleep’, which slurs: "Something big is gonna happen/Over my dead body", at last Radiohead have taken it upon themselves to openly dissect what’s around them.
Compare the intrinsically beautiful, almost solo ‘I Will’ ("I will rise up…"), to the fervent cries of "You have not been paying attention!" amongst the flailing complexities of the opening song ‘2+2=5’. He goes from the beautiful muser to the schizophrenic wonderer. No longer the disaffected passenger, Thom York is the messenger, if not the pilot of our doomed spaceship.
As ever, there’s much self-indulgent tongue in cheek lyricism if you dig deep enough beneath the promo record’s lavish fold out ‘streetmap of doom’. One can never be sure when Radiohead are laughing at us laughing at them, but the haunting vocal to ‘We Suck Young Blood’, with its brooding piano, dripping bass and hand clapped time keeping, is a pretty obvious indictment of the Pop Idol phenomenon. The overall tone of the record; as implied by its alternate title ‘The Gloaming’, is one of metropolitan twilight. The religious stage before the onset of Armageddon if you wanna get melodramatic; but it’s unarguably distant from the crystal melancholy of 'Amnesiac'.
Their post-‘OK Computer' material has often borne the hallmarks of songs grown from ideas rather than the other way round, but ‘Hail To The Thief’ is the opposite. Although there’s a lot of guitars and tune-orientated songs (in the ‘sing-along’ sense); it’s far from a return to 1997. What it actually sounds like is Radiohead playing electronic stuff live. The urgent, bass-driven standout ‘Where I End And You Begin’ takes a trippy beat akin to ‘The National Anthem’ back to the realms of an acoustic drum kit. It’s rawer in places and more listenable in others, but Nigel Godrich’s insular production rarely lets the guitars take over the mix, except for when ‘2+2=5’ and ‘There There’ fully bust open in their climatic bursts of classic Greenwood guitar stylings.
The centrepiece of ‘Hail To The Thief’ – more so than on any previous LP – is Yorke’s vocal. Clearer and more prominent, it’s more fragile and angelically affecting than ever. On tracks like ‘Sail To The Moon’ (a piano driven cosmic funeral ballad somewhere between ‘Karma Police’ and ‘Pyramid Song’) and ‘The Gloaming’ (which sounds like Thom singing to an old Spectrum computer game linked up to a heart monitor); his voice is majestically wonderful. Even in the busier tracks like ‘There There’ where he muses "Just cos you feel it/doesn’t mean it’s there" with tearful gusto, the music hangs off him like a tearful eyelash. Meanwhile, the tragically brief ‘I Will’, with its three-tiered harmonies, is a pure revelation.
‘Hail To The Thief’ poses as many questions as it answers. Naturally, it gets better the more you unveil, but to love it you have to truly appreciate it, and vice-versa. It thankfully re-employs the talents of lead-guitarist Jonny Greenwood and drummer Phil Selway to full effect, and though it contains many glimpses of ‘old’, dare I say ‘rock’ Radiohead, for once you’ll be drawn towards the more difficult, unconventional songs.
There were disheartened cries when ‘The Bends’ failed to include something to match ‘Creep’ and similarly when ‘Kid A’ and 'Amnesiac' had no ‘Karma Police’ or ‘Street Spirit’ but let’s face it, Radiohead do more than enough moaning for all of us, ten times over. Unlike politics, music’s too important to be left in the hands of the proles. So rather than ponder what might have, could have or should have been, let’s just savour what is the defining band of our generation’s latest masterpiece and all hail to it.
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