Happy Birthday Hail To The Thief

As it turns 10, Clash reassesses Radiohead's sixth...
Hail To The Thief

Stop someone in a Radiohead t-shirt on the street, ask them what their favourite record by the Oxford five-piece is, and it’s unlikely, indeed, that the answer would be ‘Hail To The Thief’.

Yet the highly influential, still-evolving band’s sixth studio set, while not as revered as 1995’s ‘The Bends’, 1997’s ‘OK Computer’ or even 2007’s ‘In Rainbows’, is well worthy of reappraisal. And as it celebrates its 10th anniversary next month, that’s exactly what Clash is presenting here.

‘Hail To The Thief’ came at a time of transition for its makers, and particularly for frontman Thom Yorke. The next album to bear his touch would be his own solo debut, 2006’s ‘The Eraser’, an electro-constructed affair that took the digital designs of Radiohead’s head-turning 2000 album, ‘Kid A’, and expanded them in a very linear, albeit rewarding, fashion.

Sitting between collections created using no shortage of sizzling circuit boards, ‘Hail To The Thief’ was rather incorrectly billed as a return to the guitar-driven rock that comprised the core structural constituents of ‘The Bends’ and ‘OK Computer’. The reality was rather bolder of build quality.

Of course, 2001’s ‘Amnesiac’ had followed ‘Kid A’, but the band’s fifth album always felt like more of an addendum, or epilogue even, of sorts to its predecessor rather than an outright new release, a feeling born from shared recording sessions. ‘Hail To The Thief’ therefore comprised (to this mindset, at least) the de facto sequel to ‘Kid A’.

So, after the propulsive, gleamingly experimental (for the band) dynamics of the entirely guitar-less ‘Idioteque’, an immediate standout from ‘Kid A’, ‘Hail To The Thief’’s lead single ‘There There’ felt like a backwards step. Drum beats were made by sticks-and-skin, rather than scrolling screens of dropped-in laptop percussion. The guitars were prominent. Yorke sang like he did on pre-‘Kid A’ material: a yearning quality in his voice, doubling up on the line “Just because you feel it / Doesn’t mean it’s there”. The track felt like a flashback – as great as it was, as it is, it didn’t sound like the Radiohead that fans had, by 2003, come to expect.

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Which was, in itself, an act of brilliance. By delivering something that actually felt nostalgically familiar to millions, Radiohead ensured that what came next could be anything they wanted. And although its curtain-up cut was more ‘traditional’ than the ‘Kid A’-era material, much of ‘Hail To The Thief’’s content staggered brilliantly away from conventions. And staggered is the right verb, as there’s a real suggestion of giddiness, of a deep unease, that sits just beneath the entirety of this collection.

Opener ‘2 + 2 = 5’ sets out what appears to be a stall loaded with politically leaning lyricism, its title drawn from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. But Yorke downplayed ‘Hail To The Thief’’s status as a protest album, despite his own admission that it served as an articulation of “a general fear of the future”. Whether it’s via the machinations of global government or something more elemental, or even supernatural, there’s no doubt that something’s keeping Yorke up at night.

And that could well be his own child – at the time of writing, Yorke’s son was but an infant. Perhaps it’s this influence on his personal and professional life that saw a withdrawal from, or even an escape from, the realities of everyday distemper to something purer, more innocent. The video for ‘There There’ has the look of an archaic, somewhat surreal children’s animation about it – like the 1950s Russian stop-motion version of ‘Peter And The Wolf’.

The song title subtitles, too, surely point to some influence beneath the surface, to double meanings and unspoken secrets: exactly the mutterings that one presumes go on within houses of parliamentary power. ‘Hail To The Thief’ itself is a steal from anti-Bush (George W) campaigning, a twist on the Presidential anthem ‘Hail To The Chief’.

Whatever the lyrical inspiration, what’s apparent on even the most cursory of listens is just how experimental ‘Hail To The Thief’ is, despite its billing as a return to its makers’ more rock-orientated roots. Not everything works – and, with the benefit of hindsight, Yorke actually published an alternative tracklist for this album in 2008, omitting a handful of songs. But the failures, such as they are, are still worthy of investigation.

One such apparent misstep is ‘A Punchup At A Wedding’; but to these ears it’s a fine exercise in contemporising the blues tradition, a beaten-down sigh of a vocal carried on a swaggering bassline. It’s almost akin to something Elbow might write: sort of dusty barroom, sort of smacked-out gutter stomp, eyes on laces and heart broken.

Another on Yorke’s list of offcuts (if given a second chance) is ‘Backdrifts’. But, again, this is a fine inclusion from this perspective, its pulsating electro backdrop connecting dots and dashes back to ‘Kid A’, while proving a more immediately melodic proposition that, say, the stuttering pulse of ‘Idioteque’. It’d certainly pass the entry requirements for inclusion on ‘The Eraser’.

Another effort that traces its lineage back to the electro-headed highlights of previous emissions is ‘Sit Down, Stand Up’. ‘HTTT’’s second track begins unassumingly, but before long Yorke’s vocal becomes twisted, collapsing over itself, and a buzzing creeps into the mix. And then: tension rises, and rises, a piano is joined by something deliciously alien of chattering insistency, and…

Explosion. Limbs all over the place. Head back, euphoria peaking.  Just after the three-minute mark. Now this is more like the Radiohead that the 00s audience had been waiting for: pushing at the edges of its own discomfort zones, prepared to take a track and ramp it up, and up, and up – and then let it crash to the ground just as its listeners were in a dizzy frenzy.

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‘HTTT’ is also blessed by two of Radiohead’s most perfectly disquieting slices of beauty found in their catalogue. One is the closing ‘Wolf At The Door’, which wheezes and coughs itself into shape before expanding with a glorious chorus that takes the song towards the stars, from a starting point of having its face down in the dirt. It’s not an especially happy tune: “Steal all my children if I don’t pay the ransom / And I’ll never see them again if I squeal to the cops,” cries Yorke. But it is a devastatingly pretty one, albeit abnormal compared to your usual instances of the form, its percussion more dominant than the ethereal keys.

‘Sail To The Moon’ is, to this fan, ‘HTTT’’s true crowning glory, though. It’s a cracked-mirror reflection of the splendour of ‘Nude’ and ‘Exit Music (For A Film)’, too delicate to truly handle but too beautiful to overlook. As it blossoms come its widening of screen – i.e., when more layers come into the mix – the effect is mesmerising. It’s a simple arrangement, really; unhurried, unmoved by any expectations-prompted influence to be anything more than what’s come before. In its album context it’s a highlight; removed, as a standalone, it still asserts a strong hold on the attention.

‘HTTT’’s second single, ‘Go To Sleep’, saw then-label EMI play it slightly safe with another selection with acoustic instrumentation leading the way. Again, it could almost be a lost recording from the band’s 90s phase, if it wasn’t for the fact that it exhibits a rather different time signature to what typically passes for straightforward indie, beginning in 10/4 before settling into a more tap-along rhythm.

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While critics appeared split somewhat on ‘HTTT’’s place amongst Radiohead’s canon – some heralded it as the work of a band at the peak of its powers; others as a slightly disappointing “placeholder” in their body of work – the album was a commercial hit. It was leaked well ahead of release, yet still climbed to the top of the UK albums chart, and outperformed the first-week sales of preceding Radiohead albums stateside.

And ‘HTTT’ is certainly an essential release in terms of marking Radiohead’s evolution from a band offering either ‘indie’ or ‘electro’ albums to one capable of successfully merging all manner of elements into a cohesive whole. ‘In Rainbows’, their self-released 2007 album, really nailed home what ‘HTTT’ was attempting to pin into place: that this band could be anything it wanted to, and was more than able to work uncommon phrases and patterns into music of mass appeal.

A classic? No, probably not. But Radiohead wouldn’t be Radiohead without it, and no Radiohead fan should be without it, either.

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Read about Radiohead's 1993 debut album 'Pablo Honey' here

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