CK Retro Review: Hail To The Thief by Radiohead

It might be the most polarizing album in the career of Radiohead. At the time it came out in 2003, Hail To The Thief was almost universally lauded, but many folks, including some of the band members themselves, have expressed reservations in the ten years since its release about the album’s length (fourteen songs, by far the band’s longest album) and quality. Here is a song-by-song review.

(All quotes following the songs are excerpted from the essays in my upcoming e-book No Surprises: Radiohead’s 100 Best Songs.)

TWO STARS

14. “The Gloaming”- “If you could separate the words from the music here, I think that they’d both work just fine on their own. Taken together, “The Gloaming” doesn’t quite connect. It sounds like a distant plea for help, when a more clarion call might have been far more affecting.”

13. “Go To Sleep”- “There are a few moments when this Hail To The Thief number gels, specifically during Yorke’s hauntingly helpless benediction at the end: “May pretty horses come to you as you sleep/I’m gonna go to sleep/And let this wash all over me.” Still, despite all of the quirkiness the band tries to imbue, “Go To Sleep” remains one of their least memorable songs.”

12. “Sit Down. Stand Up”- “The Rwandan genocide apparently inspired the sparse lyrics, and you can glean that from the chilling line “We can wipe you out anytime.” Yorke’s vocal is up front in the mix, with an itchy computer beat and a muffled riff (can’t even tell if it’s a guitar or keyboard) in the background. The music rises subtly before finally busting out into a techno freakout, with Yorke intoning the words “The Raindrops” some 47 times.

Just reading that last paragraph back to myself, I can see again how “Sit Down. Stand Up.” could be a hard sell. Complex? Yes. Impressive? Certainly. Approachable? Maybe not so much.”

11. “We Suck Young Blood”- “This song deserves special mention, because it might be the creepiest song in the band’s repertoire. That’s saying something, because Radiohead has released more than their fair share of dark and disturbing tracks. “We Suck Young Blood”, with its dirge-like beat that sounds like a chain-gang in hell and Jonny Greenwood’s Ondes Martenot conjuring up spirits best left in the underworld, is so studiedly spooky that it could make John Carpenter flinch.”

THREE STARS

10. “I Will”- “The chief selling point of this track off Hail To The Thief is Thom Yorke’s voice, mutitracked and harmonizing with itself to chillingly beautiful effect. Eventually another track of Thom comes in with a countermelody. With all voices coming in from every direction, the song is a bit like Brian Wilson and Freddie Mercury’s love-child.”

9. “Scatterbrain”- “Maybe Hail To The Thief is a shade too long, but I liken it to The Beatles White Album in that it allows us to hear some songs that otherwise would have been relegated to B-sides or bootleg limbo. I have a feeling that “Scatterbrain” is one of those songs, because it feels unfinished, almost like the sketch of an idea not totally fleshed out. And yet it works in its own modest and mysterious way.”

8. “Sail To The Moon”- “This lovely, melancholy number was written by Thom Yorke as a kind of lullaby to his son Noah (which would explain the lines about ark-building.) Unlike other rock-song lullabies that seek to comfort their children or give advice, “Sail To The Moon” is an almost desperate plea from a father to a son to avoid the mistakes of the past and forge a better future.”

7. “Where I End And You Begin”- “A song like this gem off Hail To The Thief would be nothing without the drumming of Phil Selway and the bass of Colin Greenwood. Greenwood’s playing here is propulsive, pogoing around in directions that make this one of the more danceable Radiohead songs. The song has a feel not unlike classic Depeche Mode or New Order thanks to his work on it.”

FOUR STARS

6. “There There”- “Proving they can be endlessly inventive even within the confines of a conventional rock song, “There There” is one of the most instantly memorable tracks on Hail To The Thief, which the band clearly realized since they chose it as the lead single. The song’s tribal rhythm is just irresistible, an alluring foundation from which all of the song’s other delights spring.”

5. “Backdrifts”- “My favorite moment of “Backdrfits” comes when the beat and the synth squiggles fall away for a moment and Thom Yorke lets out with an “Oh-oh-oh” exclamation. It has the feel of a live performance at that point, as if the frontman got completely caught up in the breathless music. That cry, part-anguished, part-cathartic, gives this Hail To The Thief song a beating heart to go alone with its shaking rump.”

4. “2+2=5”- ““You have not been paying attention,” Thom Yorke intones throughout this furious track. One of the cool things about a band like Radiohead is that they don’t have their heads in the sand, and they’re more than willing to expose the warts of the world for their audience to hear even when it might be easier to sing love songs. And yet it never goes down like medicine, because they can present tough material in such a vibrant way that the message slides smoothly into the audience’s subconscious.”

3. “A Punchup At A Wedding”- “This is the band at its most funky, achieving a groove with Colin Greenwood’s slinking bass and some downbeat piano chords not unlike something you would hear from mid-period Steely Dan. Static-charged blasts of guitar add some spunk to the later verses. And I love the “no, no” part at the start and conclusion, the way they’re all overdubbed on top of each other to make it sound like about a thousand Thom Yorkes have formed a melancholy mob.”

FIVE STARS

2. “Myxomatosis”- “There’s a perverse sense of humor that runs through “Myxomatosis,” making it, pound-for-pound, one of the most flat-out fun Radiohead tracks. That’s not to say it’s frivolous; I don’t think the band could ever go down that avenue. But there’s still something tongue-in-cheek about it, as if the band is having a laugh at the perception that they’re a morose bunch. Name-checking a rabbit disease is just another curve ball to send the obsessive fans diving for clues, but I think this is the band at its most off-the-cuff and irreverent, taking the piss out of their own somber image.”

1. “A Wolf At The Door”- “Release, relative release anyway, comes in the form of the chorus, as Yorke sings in a lilting melody how hard it is to keep the “wolf at the door” at bay. “A Wolf At The Door” represents the dark side in everyone’s psyche that can get loose when all of the external forces become too overbearing. We’ve all got one, and it’s important to find outlets for such possibly destructive energy. I would recommend Radiohead’s ridiculously amazing music as just such an outlet.”

(E-mail me at countdownkid@hotmail.com and follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. E-books and books based on material that originated on this site are available via the link below.)

http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1/183-7071997-3936114?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=jim%20beviglia&sprefix=jim+beviglia%2Caps&rh=i%3Aaps%2Ck%3Ajim%20beviglia

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