By the band’s own admission, Hail to the Thief is kind of a mess.1 Exhausted (and rightly so) from the Kid A/Amnesiac sessions, Radiohead opted for an organic, spontaneous recording environment for their sixth studio album, relocating to the Hollywood area and writing songs in studio rather than meticulously planning them out through computers and incurring long periods of post-production. This is blatant in the lively atmosphere on Hail to the Thief, even at its softest moments (e.g. “Sail to the Moon”), but also betrays the album’s inconsistency in theme and content. At fourteen tracks clocking in at just under an hour, it is also Radiohead’s longest release.
Hail to the Thief touches every aspect of Radiohead’s then-extant discography. There’s the piano ballads of Amnesiac (“Sail to the Moon,” “We Suck Young Blood”), the dissonant electronic samplism of Kid A (“The Gloaming”), the melodic yet self-pained alt-rock of The Bends (“Go to Sleep”), the biting political commentary through personal reflection of OK Computer (“I Will,” “Scatterbrain”), and even a bit of straight rocking-out from the Pablo Honey era2 (“Go to Sleep”). Then there are the songs that combine each part of the Oxford quintet’s previous works into a single song, often to amazing effect (“There There,” “Backdrifts,” “Myxomatosis”). Hail to the Thief comprises more ideas in an hour than most bands touch in a decade or two.
This album is one of alternative rock’s most impressive with regards to packaging and presentation. Long-time collaborator Stanley Donwood’s artwork depicts a top-down representation of a city landscape (heavily influenced by Los Angeles, CA) with buildings replaced by words commonly seen in advertisements, consumerism, and salesmanship.3 Not only is it aesthetically reflective of the album’s varied flavors of genre within the music as per the colors and words, but the imperfect linework and incomplete fill represent Radiohead’s patented subtle darkness and twisted interpretation of the world around them. At the same time, it also encompasses their love for myriad of possibilities that the world holds, and the ominous future4 that awaits from the consequences of over-consumption and selfishness.5 Each track has an alternate title – most of which are lines or characters pulled from children’s television shows,6 further elucidating the album’s focus on the future through the most visceral of all means: children.
This message gets lost in Hail to the Thief‘s haphazard tracklisting and occasionally unfinished ideas, especially in comparison to previous works. Kid A provided four tracks of increasing dissonance before the palette-cleansing “Treefingers” to prepare the listener for four more tracks of increasingly avant-garde rock soundscapes and a closing track of astonishing emotional clarity. OK Computer bookended its themes of modern life in the digital era with a narrative of a car crash told by two different perspectives. Hail to the Thief, however, does not have that thematic clarity nor does it have a propelling narrative. The tracklisting is arbitrary, with the exception of the opening to “2 + 2 = 5” in the guitar feedback and Thom Yorke’s admonishment how “that’s a nice way to start,” and the position of “The Gloaming” in the center of the album serves as an intermission akin to “Treefingers” on Kid A. There are three electronic keyboard/piano tracks back-to-back-to-back,7 two mid-tempo alternative rock songs at the closer,8 and a hard-hitting electronic rocker that comes way too late to deliver its punches after forty-five minutes and two immediately proceeding ballads.9 They blend together, which should never happen in a decent Radiohead album. The filler of “A Punchup at a Wedding” and “I Will” – the latter of which is extraordinarily incomplete – conflate the problem.
Hail to the Thief is disorganized, but it does contain impressive experiments in hybrid alternative rock and electronic music. It is political in a way rarely touched by rock music outside of punk rock and Warped Tour, and sounds like the work of grown-ups fearing for their child’s safety. While inconsistent, it is an important work in context of the early twentieth century and fallout from the United States’ disastrous invasion of Iraq and controversy surrounding the election of George W. Bush. Its variety may help new listeners discover which era of Radiohead to which they should listen, in addition to providing an outlook on extant trends in alternative rock and independent music of the new millennium.
1. 2 + 2 = 5 (The Lukewarm) – (3:19) – ★★★☆☆
2. Sit Down. Stand Up. (Snakes and Ladders) – (4:19) – ★★★★☆
3. Sail to the Moon (Brush the Cobwebs Out of the Sky) – (4:18) – ★★★☆☆
4. Backdrifts (Honeymoon Is Over) – (5:22) – ★★★★☆
5. Go to Sleep (Little Man Being Erased) – (3:21) – ★★★★★
6. Where I End and You Begin (The Sky Is Falling In) – (4:29) – ★★★★★
7. We Suck Young Blood (Your Time Is Up) – (4:56) – ★★★★☆
8. The Gloaming (Softly Open Our Mouths in the Cold) – (3:31) – ★★★★★
9. There There (The Boney King of Nowhere) – (5:23) – ★★★★★
10. I Will (No Man’s Land) – (1:59) – ★★★☆☆
11. A Punchup at a Wedding – (4:57) – ★★★☆☆
12. Myxomatosis (Judge, Jury, and Executioner) – (3:52) – ★★★★★
13. Scatterbrain (As Dead as Leaves) – (3:21) – ★★★★★
14. A Wolf at the Door (It Girl. Rag Doll.) – (3:21) – ★★★☆☆
In 2008, Thom Yorke posted a revamped playlist to his blog W.A.S.T.E. that removed the tracks “We Suck Young Blood,” “Backdrifts,” “I Will,” and “A Punchup at a Wedding.” Here is one that I made for listening to Hail to the Thief:
1. We Suck Young Blood – (4:56)
2. Backdrifts – (5:22)
3. Myxomatosis – (3:52)
4. Go to Sleep – (3:21)
5. Where I End and You Begin – (4:29)
6. The Gloaming – (3:32)
7. Scatterbrain – (3:22)
8. There There – (5:23)
9. Sit Down. Stand Up. – (4:20)
10. Sail to the Moon – (4:18)
Overall [revamped]: ★★★★½
The tracks “2 + 2 = 5,” “I Will,” “A Punchup at a Wedding,” and “A Wolf at the Door” were removed from the listing, bringing the album to a runtime of forty-two minutes – which is around Radiohead’s average length per album.
Hail to the Thief is an album best described as a trepidatious outlook on the future; where Kid A chronicled sheer intrapersonal terror and Amnesiac was putting together the pieces, Hail to the Thief takes the past and applies its relevancy to making the world a (potentially) better place. “2 + 2 = 5” is a moderately decent alternative rocker, but is too pretentious. “I Will” – described by Yorke as one of his angriest songs ever10 – is extremely unrefined and does nothing musically that “Go to Sleep” does not already do. “A Punchup at a Wedding” is a bit embarrassing, as its content is informed by a bad review that a music critic gave to Radiohead’s homecoming concert in Oxford – it’s the musical equivalent of mudslinging, and it’s a blemish on Radiohead’s track record for mature songwriting post-The Bends. It is also just another piano ballad that pales in comparison to “We Suck Young Blood” and “Sail to the Moon.” Finally, “A Wolf at the Door” is the most demo-like of all tracks on Hail to the Thief. The stream-of-consciousness delivery sounds more like a bad attempt at rapping than it does a Joyce-esque narration of the world.
The tracklisting is almost entirely different. In an attempt to bring about more organizational clarity, tracks are paired together at opposite ends of the album based on theme. For example, Hail to the Thief begins and ends with piano ballads: “We Suck Young Blood” (whose drunken directness is a great way to pull the listener into the album) and “Sail to the Moon” (whose intimacy closes the album on a plaintive yet positive note). “Backdrift” and “Sit Down. Stand Up.” are paired due to their keyboard-driven intensity. Following are “Myxomatosis” and “There There,” which represent the strongest of the electronic and alternative rock hybrids. “Go to Sleep” and “Scatterbrain” are the most straightforward alternative rock songs; and “Where I End and You Being” and “The Gloaming” are the most dissonant and haunting. This track list follows Radiohead’s musical evolution from electronics to alternative rock and back again, in addition to going from light to dark to light again – which elucidates the twilight theme connoted by “The Gloaming.”11 12
1I am loathe to cite Wikipedia on this, but the article for this album has a decent subsection devoted to the band’s current opinion of it. This is a pretty good article, but it does not contain many references for its claims about the album’s legacy: http://www.xsnoize.com/classic-album-revisited-radiohead-hail-to-the-thief-the-gloaming/
2… although saying that Radiohead wrote anything like what is on Pablo Honey again in their career is grasping for comparisons. The band really hasn’t done anything in the post-grunge world ever again.
3“Radiohead’s ‘sixth Man’ Reveals the Secrets behind Their Covers.” The Guardian. September 22, 2006. Accessed April 25, 2016. http://www.theguardian.com/music/2006/nov/22/radiohead.popandrock1.
4Hail to the Thief has one of the few genuinely positive songs in the band’s career via the ballad “Sail to the Moon,” which was written by Yorke to his young son.
5… or I’m reading too far into it. Hey, that’s the name of the game when you’re a Radiohead fan.
6For example, the alternative title of “There There” is “The Boney King of Nowhere,” who is a character on the British television show Bagpuss.
7“Sit Down. Stand Up.,” “Sail to the Moon,” and “Backdrifts.”
8“Scatterbrain” (which I firmly believe is one of Radiohead’s most underrated songs) and “A Wolf at the Door” (which I firmly believe was a mistake in Yorke’s piss-take rap).
9“Myxomatosis” (a disease about which I only know due to Wikipedia articles and Watership Down).
10Again, check the band’s Wikipedia page for more information. I am now off to take a shower, as I feel dirty for recommending Wikipedia as a formal source not once but twice.
11According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “gloaming” refers to “twilight, dusk;” better interpreted as the glow that permeates the sky during evening as the sun finishes setting.
12In writing about Radiohead’s longest, most bloated album, I wrote my longest, most bloated review. The irony is not lost on me.