There’s no amount of money in the world that could persuade me to spend a minute in Thom Yorke’s shoes right now. Even though the prospect of learning some of his spastic dance moves makes it awfully tempting, the pressure must be just too unbearable to withstand. He is, after all, the de facto leader of the most popular rock ‘n’ roll band in the world, who for the second time in his band’s 10-year career has had to prove that Radiohead is an entity worthy of all the critical acclaim and rabid adulation it receives. But instead of buckling under the weight of all that expectation and spending five years on some overwrought faux masterpiece, Yorke and his bandmates did what any truly great rock band would do—ignore everyone and make the record they felt like making.
Back at the end of March though, it seemed as if Hail to the Thief (so titled in honor of George W. Bush’s “stolen” presidential election) might not be such a triumphant step for the band when an unmastered version of the entire album leaked and immediately spread like a virus over file-sharing networks. Disappointment ensued after listeners couldn’t equate the faint glimmers of brilliance and altogether flat production with the cutting-edge standards the band is normally associated with. As it stood then, the record had no continuity, no stylistic cohesion, nothing to suggest it was anything more than a bunch of new songs that hadn’t progressed much at all beyond their live previews from the previous summer’s tour.
Perhaps it’s only a psychological difference, but there’s something in the finished product that makes the customary Radiohead magic more apparent. It could be a liberal sprinkling of Nigel Godrich’s faerie dust held off until the very last minute for all anyone really knows about the band’s creative process; regardless of the means, however, the end is a logical step forward that reconciles the alien experimentalism of Kid A and Amnesiac with the gift for post-whatever songwriting perfected on The Bends and OK Computer. In fact, several tracks like “Sit Down. Stand Up”, “Where I End and You Begin” and “A Punchup at a Wedding” convert the Krautrock and electronica influences introduced on those last two challenging records into concise pop song structures, proving that Radiohead hasn’t completely given up on pleasing its staunch admirers. But even if a list of song highlights isn’t an easy one to compile due to the 14 tracks’ often reluctant charms, one thing is certain—the end of “2 + 2 = 5” rocks hard enough to send a whole herd of Elephants stampeding for the used bins.
Hail to the Thief‘s complexity carries over into its lyrical content as well—especially for a band whose reputation relies as heavily on its words as its music. Much has already been made of the lack of vitriolic commentary the title suggests is contained within; for better or worse, this is not an overtly political record. There’s a strong sense of resignation that carries through Yorke’s lyrics on the entire disc, but it’s not so much an outright surrender as it is a retreat and regrouping from the global beatdown handed out to anyone who dared to oppose the course of world politics over the past two years. Think of it this way: if OK Computer was the point where Yorke and Radiohead issued a challenge to the status quo, and Kid A and Amnesiac represented the waging of the war, then Hail to the Thief is the soundtrack to a defeated, but nowhere near surrendered, voice of dissidence. Or, to use Yorke’s own imagery from “I Will”—“Lay me down / In a bunker / Underground / I won’t let this happen to my children / . . . / I will / Rise up”—these are definitely not the words of a quitter.
So even if Hail to the Thief isn’t the protest record of the decade, or OK Computer 2 as Yorke suggested in an interview earlier this year, it’s still an incredible album from a band that continues to redefine its boundaries. Besides, most bands never even achieve one perfect record throughout their careers—why should anyone expect Radiohead to deliver two?