Radiohead: Hail to the Thief (Capitol)

“What’s all that electronic crap?”

What is it with people, anyway? One of the most creative and cutting-edge of major bands continues to make compelling albums and stay true to their own vision and integrity at the same time, and all people can do is carp.

We’re talking about Radiohead, of course, and their new album Hail to the Thief, which is only the sixth full-length album in a career that seems much longer; in terms of amount of press received, you’d think Radiohead have been around for decades. After the acclaimed masterpiece that was OK Computer, the band felt like pushing some boundaries, experimenting a little, as most enduring artists do, and the resulting sessions produced two controversial works: Kid A and Amnesiac. “What’s all that electronic crap?”cried the carpers and cynics. “Where are the guitars, man? Where are the songs?” Funny, I heard plenty of songs on both those albums; but perhaps they simply weren’t verse-chorus-verse kinda songs. They were unique. Layered. And emotionally involving, if you made time in your busy little life to actually listen to them.

Just how could any real fan of modern rock fail to appreciate Thom Yorke’s emotive, character-rich vocals? The man can sing to the high heavens or to the bowels of hell; he can be sweet and tender, or ferocious and angry. He’s one of the most instantly recognizable vocalists in rock, without a doubt, and he has learned the secret of saying a lot with seemingly very little. Some critics have been griping about Yorke’s angst-laden tunes over the course of these last few records. But Yorke’s a reasonable man/Get off, get off, get off his case. Yorke is trying to avoid being predictable, trying to avoid churning out music by rote, as so many bands end up doing.

So now we have Hail to the Thief, which already there’s been grumbling about because it isn’t the full return to The Bends-era guitar rock that less devoted fans have been clamoring for. And which some were willing the group to do with pre-release speculation in the press. Radiohead had other ideas, though. Primarily, they wanted not to labor over a record so much, to have a better time in the studio. Most of Hail was recorded in a brisk two-week stint in L.A., with a bit of follow-up back in their native U.K. The result is a record of mostly shorter songs than their last couple, a record that probably has the best overall flow since OK Computer. And, golly, there are guitars on it! Not the showboatin’, fret-slappin’ fury favored by less discrete rockers of the world. But simple, resonating chords, played cleanly and juxtaposed effectively against bits of keyboard and vibrant percussion.

Take the opener, “2+2=5.”Johnny Greenwood plugs in (the record begins with him doing so) and plays a couple of melancholy chords, drummer Phil Selway taps out the simplest of beats, and Yorke’s voice enters, soft, clear, and calm. But since this whole record is about the death of calm, or the search for calm amid chaos, the band quickly amps the track up to a “Paranoid Android” level of fury, with the guitars wailing and Yorke sounding about to come unglued. “There is no way out/You can scream and you can shout/It is too late now/Because you have not been paying attention,”Yorke bleats, in what is most certainly an indictment of complacence in Western society as Dubya and his minions rose to power (or seized it, some will say) and set about dismantling or lessening long-standing institutions and freedoms. There’s a pattern of songs on the album alternating between calm and fury; “Sit Down. Stand Up”is another: ominous, fragmented piano chords and a simple drum machine give way to a frenetic burst of clattering percussion, with Yorke shouting “The raindrops/the raindrops” a total of 47 times (I counted).

Less adaptable Radiohead fans are scratching their heads by now, perhaps. But great stuff is to come: the moody and relatively straightforward ballad “Sail to the Moon”; the vintage Radiohead rouser “Go to Sleep,” which features crisp acoustic guitars chugging away and a wonderful lock-step rhythm that kicks in at the minute-and-a-half mark (in a curious lyrical discrepancy between the sleeve and the actual recording, Yorke sings, “You know, we don’t want a monster taking over”; the sleeve indicates the lyric as “We don’t wanna wake the monster.”Have fun with that one any way you want…); and the current single, “There There,” which sounds like a classic. The inspired unity of the band on this track should be obvious: the bass and drums are flawless, the guitars have a wonderfully jagged edge, and Yorke sings his heart out, doing a little self-harmonizing after a verse or two that is positively haunting. “Just because you feel it/Doesn’t mean it’s there/There’s always a siren/Singing you to shipwreck/Steer away from those rocks,”sings Yorke in one of the album’s best lyrics. Great song by any standard.

“A Punchup at a Wedding” is arguably even better, because it truly seems to take the band into new territory. Phil Selway and bassist Colin Greenwood do wondrous things on this tune, which sees the band laying down a slyly funky groove, having an obviously great time in the process, though the song itself seems to be about dysfunctional shenanigans at, yes, a wedding. Of course, with Radiohead, most lyrics can be metaphors for something else; that’s part of the fun of hearing their music without studying the words too closely. Part of the fun is also hearing the band warp traditional song structures and redefine the word “arrangement.”“We Suck Young Blood”features funereal piano and probably the most lethargic handclaps ever recorded, in the service of a sickly tune about the entertainment industry’s continual manipulation of youth and beauty. You most assuredly won’t hear this one on any Clear Channel–owned station. “The Gloaming”is one of those weird, arty, electronic numbers and won’t win back any who lost interest in the band after Amnesiac, even though Yorke’s vocal is achingly sincere for those who stick with it. “Myxomatosis” features guitars buzzing like a giant insect, a syncopated rhythm track, and crazy lyrics that’ll make you keep reading them over and over. The line “No one likes a smart arse/But we all like stars” particularly made me grin.

It’s important to mention producer Nigel Godrich’s contributions to Radiohead’s sound; he’s effectively become the band’s sixth member. Godrich seems intent on keeping the human element in the music no matter how much technical gear is employed; the mixes always have a natural warmth, and there are little sonic elements percolating below the surface which aren’t always noticeable on first listening. Radiohead albums have an organic sound to them, and much of the reason for that is Nigel Godrich.

Two superb tracks close the album: “Scatterbrain,”a sweetly poetic, melodic turn by Yorke and company which does hearken back to The Bends–era Radiohead (the descending guitar chords here are beautiful), and the hard-to-describe “Wolf at the Door,”which begins with a fairly elementary, Pink Floyd-ish chord progression and suddenly becomes rather interesting when Yorke starts speak-singing heaping mouthfuls of words, all having something to do with this crazy world we’ve made for ourself. Sample: “I keep the wolf from the door but he calls me up calls me on the phone tells me all the ways that he’s gonna mess me up.” Anyone who’s dealt with collection agencies or cable companies can identify with those lines.

Anyone who truly likes Radiohead will find Hail to the Thief a satisfying listen. The album is filled with fascinating textures, emotionally charged vocals by Mr. Yorke, and ambiguous lyrics that clearly allude to the nasty state of affairs in the world, but also reflect the fear and anxiety about sharing opinions about them openly anymore. It’s a record about looking inward when so much is happening outwardly, beyond our control. Yet ultimately, it’s not a downer record, because the band themselves seem so together. They survived the post-OK nuttiness when slobbering critics and fans everywhere practically elevated them to musical sainthood; they survived the turbulent sessions for the “difficult” companion albums Kid A and Amnesiac; and they survived several world tours that saw their stature rising to ever higher levels…along with the stakes. Now, they’ve simply gone about the business of making a very good record that was fun for them, regardless of how it’s to be received by fans and critics. It’s not a giant leap forward; after all, they’ve already done that. It’s simply the work of a band that has found its stride, five musicians sharing the inspiration and perspiration together, making superior musical art for a world that too often takes it for granted, even as forces in that world threaten to take it away.

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