There are two camps, roughly,
astride the Radiohead divide. One says that the band peaked with the moody
rock glories of OK Computer, and that Kid A and Amnesiac, Radiohead's subsequent deeper dives down the rabbit hole
(indeed right up the rabbit's psychic sonic bum), indicate that they're on
the wrong track, spinning ever further away from the only context in which
they could have rightly been termed great achievers: as a rock band. Camp 2, meanwhile, feels
that Radiohead are among the handful of rockers in history who've
demonstrably improved with each new album, and, more importantly, have
shown a commitment to evolution/ rock deconstruction –– i.e., they've
understood that the world does not in fact need more great rock bands.
In the wake of Kid A and Amnesiac, both of which struck a
horrifically delicate balance to keep the "rock" tethered enough to allow
for singer Thom Yorke to feel his way through an increasingly obfuscated
field of dreams, mournings and peeves, one can imagine that some of that
rock-more/rock-less stuff seeped into the band's creative consciousness.
Especially in this climate of back-to-rock basics, which has as much as
stated that to not rock is simply passé (and the band has expressed its
admiration for the spate of primitive-glam rock & roll revivalists such
as the Strokes, the Vines, the Hives, etc.), you might think Radiohead felt
the fear of alienating their fans. Could be –– but perhaps not.
Hail to the Thief was recorded in part in Los
Angeles, far from the misty mental moors Radiohead have trudged through for
the last few years. The assumption was that our sunshine, beaches and
tanned people walking around naked would've put Radiohead in a lighter,
less complicated frame of mind while cutting their tracks here, and while
these new songs give the impression that they've loosened up slightly (which all rock bands who've
been heaped with critical praise seem compelled to do: beat themselves at
their own game), Hail to the Thief still only touches on rock as mere rock &
roll; whether you're sick of it or not, Thom Yorke's not finished his
musing. He's still knocking about in one of his melancholy miasmas, and if
you require a 100-percent rocking band, this Radiohead ain't for you.
His troubled talking-in-his-sleep persona
notwithstanding, it has been rumored lately that Thom Yorke's recent
political-minded rants have rather turned off the other members of the
band, who, given their druthers, just might prefer to knock out a buncha
choons to drink and dance to. Yet Yorke's kept his topicalities strictly
off the new record; he does have something to say, and he's saying it, or
sensing it. And you, listener, will find the meaning between the words,
between Yorke's very syllables.
There is possibly no singer on the planet
who comes off more like a musician than a spokesman for, say, our
disgruntled youth. Thom Yorke's voice (two camps there, too, voters –– great
singing or grating whining?) insinutates supremely well as an instrument amid the group's astutely
conceived instrumental settings. That his limited-in-range vocals can
convey so much (while obscuring their intent) owes as much to the songs
themselves, which largely and blessedly cast their lot away from overtly
American influences and toward what I swear must be English plainsong. From
the first cut's ("2 + 2 = 5") minor modes and moods, you hear paradoxically
very modern songwriting; extraordinary (to blues-clogged ears) chord
progressions, cunning shifts to mutated-medieval guitars and clustered
voices, as if the Plague has come. Sadly, you think, all that's just an
intro to build into the Sex Pistols/ Magazine punky thrash chorus, but that
chorus grows ever spunkier, swivels and screeches and Blam! End of tune.
Chimes, piano ostinatos and
electronic-percussion shimmies tart up "Sit Down. Stand Up" as Yorke urges
us to "Walk into the jaws of hell...anytime, anytime." I suppose like every
Radiohead song this one could be a metaphor for Thom Yorke himself –– his
body, his quietness, his isolations, mostly the fire down below. His voice
is telling stories, he isn't, and they're usually stories about the tone of his
own voice. When the band kicks in with such a cinematic urgency, another
digital-editing trick jolts it all into even higher gear, like a chase
scene, except, with typical Radiohead vibration, Yorke's referring
lyrically to "the raindrops" as synth squalls skitter and squawl.
Juxtaposing like this
is a game Radiohead will employ repeatedly on the album, as if it's the
divide itself that intrigues them most, and always, this state of
betweenness is where their greatest power lies. On "Sail to the Moon"
("This afternoon I spoke too soon"), the medieval mold unfolds on an
acoustic piano, and electric guitars filigree simply alongside; Yorke's
singing about something, yes, but more significantly the palette swings
narrow to very wiiiide, like seeing Snowdonia for the first time, and something
gets illustrated between icy clouds of guitar, broad chordings and stately,
reflective drumkit. It's so gorgeous, makes you feel all feely inside, but not soft,
exactly, more like you want to dive off a cliff –– not to die, but because
you want to fly. The seductive lure of death is built into all Radiohead
songs, and on this one, as the drums recede and Yorke's voice ascends into
whirling electronic clouds, it's as if to say, "If you come in, you'll
never return." Wicked, actually.
That song, too, ends with a boom. But what
happened? Does it matter? The Cubans have a word, destemplanza, for an unexplained body
temperature, not high enough to be considered fever, but serious enough to
miss school and work. Toward the end of the disc, a fascinating variation
on Radiohead's deliriousness specialty comes in "Myxamatosis," which the
musos among you will appreciate for its complex shifting meters over a
simply righteous fuzz bass sound, like an English or Italian prog band circa
1974 would've done. You don't hear this sort of thing often enough, and
note how such a proggy setting easily accommodates the song's otherwise
blatant obliqueness. You want to indulge them their experiments when they
do stuff like this; Yorke's still warbling things like "l don't know why I
feel so scared by myself," but such timeless sentiment gains enormous
resonance when the related instrumental attack muddies the motivation in the song, and the effect
is multifarious, flanged, though not diluted.
A state of unwellness that can't be
diagnosed often characterizes Radiohead, and it's a state the band is still
incredibly good at conveying –– and ought to continue pursuing. Yet there
are several points on Hail to the Thief where a kind of selling out
to the pop-marketplace crowd seems to cloud their judgment, such as the
more overtly electronic-conscious "Backdrifts," where Yorke's still wailing
obscurely about what ails him (and by shifting his register and choice of
keys a bit, skirts the irritation factor), but the song itself, though
attractively laced with muffled panning Morse Codes and ring-modulated
pinging polyrhythms, lacks the substance to justify it dragging on so long.
Much like U2's songs (which have the effect of being all in the same key,
even if they aren't), this one wears out its limited charms because it
lacks variation and simply doesn't go nowhere, and doesn't do it fast
enough. Likewise the tuneless, meandering "Go to Sleep," while relatively
chipper and piled with busybusy askance-guitar splinters, sounds like an
outtake, though perhaps it's tailored for live performance.
But we demand perfection from Radiohead,
don't we, and only a complete churl would deny them their occasional
filler. It's almost stunning to realize that, Radiohead being Radiohead –– all about a kind of deception, or addressing (self-) delusion –– at least
one of the tunes on Hail to the Thief that I firmly believed bored me most is one I
am now persuaded will most hungrily persist to gnaw at me. It's called "Scatterbrain."
Strewn with humdrum U2-style rock rhythms and further varieties of arcane
effluvia, it dared me to yawn –– but a completely flooring and quite
un-American chord progression rushed in, both nullifying and multiplying
all that'd come before.
That's no easy trick, and
it's Radiohead's extant mastery of sophisticated structures like these –– which remain song forms by establishing their own kind of symmetry –– that
imparts their simple and most important message: When you set your own
terms, you can create your own shapes, and others are sure to follow.