Every Radiohead album can be associated with some watershed moment in the band’s career. Pablo Honey is the one with “Creep,” still their most popular song by far if Spotify streams count for anything. The Bends is the one where they established themselves as guitar deities with staying power. OK Computer is the one that made them instantly legendary. Kid A is the one that made them permanently legendary. Amnesiac will always be in Kid A’s shadow somewhat, but on the other hand, it’s the one where they had the balls to release a second LP from the same sessions as Kid A just eight months later. Skipping ahead, In Rainbows is the middle finger to the music industry. The King Of Limbs is (and I might be stretching here) the one where the line between Radiohead and Thom Yorke’s solo career started to blur.
Hail To The Thief, which turns 10 years old Sunday, is harder than any of them to pinpoint, partially because it’s the one album where Radiohead seemed to be spinning its wheels. In more positive terms, as Chris Ott accurately predicted in his terrific 2003 review, it was the moment when Radiohead’s sonic footprint was entrenched at last: “Much as U2’s Zooropa still sounded like U2, anything Radiohead does from here on out will sound like Radiohead.” Hail To The Thief wasn’t entirely bereft of new ideas — there’s nothing else in their catalog like “There There,” or “A Wolf At The Door,” or “2+2=5,” maybe not coincidentally the album’s three best songs — it’s just that so many of the other tracks played like slight revisions of previous efforts. Every other Radiohead record reimagined the band’s sound; this one recycled it. Still, this being Radiohead, even the retreads were mostly glorious. Ott was almost apologetic in his praise for this flawed, overstuffed set: “though Hail To The Thief will likely fade into their catalog as a slight placeholder once their promissory transformation is complete, most of us will long cherish the view from this bridge.” Again, he’s right. Every time I return to this record, the flaws seem more glaring, yet my affection for it hasn’t waned.
Maybe we’ll call it “the political one.” Hail To The Thief is immersed in dread and paranoia, albeit a more visceral, emboldened dread and paranoia than what characterized OK Computer or Kid A. If those records were the sound of a man curled up in the fetal position, paralyzed by the world around him, this was a father swinging into action to protect his family. Thom Yorke had no shortage of tumult to get worked up about. As he explained to Rolling Stone, the title Hail To The Thief is a reference to George W. Bush’s controversial 2000 election win, news that set off “this tremendous feeling of foreboding, quite indescribable, really. To me, all the feelings on the record stem from that moment.” He almost didn’t use the phrase, though, because “the record is not just about that.” Next came 9/11, then the U.S. and U.K. subverting the U.N. to invade Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. War on Terror, Axis of Evil, Weapons of Mass Destruction — the phrases are still evocative of the tension in the air. Underlying the global concerns were the personal: In 2000 Yorke suffered a beating at the hands of street thugs while walking home from a pub. The following year, his son, Noah, was born. Suddenly, Yorke had more to lose than elections.
Speaking of thievery: Many fans might remember it as “the one that leaked.” An unfinished version of Hail to the Thief — “a stolen copy of early, unmixed edits and roughs,” as Jonny Greenwood described it — hit the internet 10 weeks ahead of the proper release date, one of the earliest and most prominent records to be subjected to such treatment. The leak presented a major quandary that music fans became accustomed to in ensuing years: get a sneak peek of a record in progress, or wait to hear it like the band intended? (FWIW, Radiohead was beyond pissed; part of the reason 2007’s In Rainbows was kept under wraps for so long and unleashed so suddenly was so the band could ensure every listener encountered the finished product.)
I was a release-date purist back then (ha!), so I dutifully avoided the Hail To The Thief leak for a while, but when a friend decided to broadcast the whole thing on our college radio station, I couldn’t help but sit in. The record awed and inspired me even as a rough draft, bounding through styles like a rich teenage girl flinging through her walk-in closet. Weeks later, during the last week of my freshman year of college, I purchased the official version, popped it in my car stereo and cruised the hills of southeastern Ohio. As I explored the album’s peaks and valleys, tantalized to finally be hearing it again, the sheer quantity of songs was thrilling. There was so much music that some of it was bound to strike you.
That quantity was Hail To The Thief’s blessing and curse. Here in 2013, given that Radiohead’s last two records took four years apiece to see the light of day, the thought of Oxford’s finest releasing three albums in that time span seems like a fantasy. Back in 2003, it was slightly more realistic but still fantastic in its own way — an unexpected bounty from a band that not long before had threatened to disappear completely. Radiohead isn’t the sort of band that usually releases 14-track albums, so getting so much new music at once, just two years after Amnesiac, seemed exceptionally generous. In hindsight, though, Hail To The Thief is a strong argument that this band shouldn’t release 14-track albums, at least not before taking an excruciatingly long time to perfect them.
For all the lefty ideals that coursed through it, musically Hail To The Thief is a remarkably conservative record, an unregulated record. Whereas the Kid A/Amnesiac double dose posited them as contrarians bent on making miraculous music with both hands tied behind their backs — or by reducing Yorke’s majestic wail to a garbled mumble and misplacing Jonny’s guitar, same diff — this time they rolled with what came naturally, bringing guitars back into the picture to mingle with the icy electronics. Yorke explained it to Rolling Stone like so: “I don’t know why, but we just got back into that. When we talked about it, after the tour, we realized that we didn’t want to make any big creative leap or statement. This is a good space we’re in. We should carry on and enjoy it.” (No leap? No statement? Enjoy? Who are you and what have you done with Thom Yorke?!)
Furthermore, in contrast to the laborious sessions that birthed Kid A and Amnesiac, the band moved fast in the studio, banging out one song per day. Perhaps the decision to record in L.A., per producer Nigel Godrich’s suggestion, had them feeling footloose and fancy free? Maybe the posh parties they attended eroded their work ethic? Were they just tired of aiming for immortality? Whatever the rationale, as Doug Moore pointed out in his Counting Down feature, the rapid pace made Hail To The Thief sound “positively raw.” In its most ferocious moments — from the explosion into “You have not been paying attention!” to the harrowing desperation of “I’ll never see ’em again if I squeal to the cops!” — the immediacy pays off big time; you can practically hear the exclamation points. But raw can also mean undercooked, and another way to place this record in Radiohead’s canon is “the one with the filler.” Yorke later regretted the approach, telling Spin, “I wish I had another go at it. We wanted to do things quickly, and I think the songs suffered.” The Radiohead LPs we revere most passionately did not come easily; this one came too easily.
To Hail To The Thief’s credit, which songs constitute the dead weight is up for debate somewhat. The variety platter approach means different people gravitate to different tracks. To these ears, “Sail To The Moon” is the basest “Pyramid Song” retread imaginable. The tepid “Go To Sleep” barely even sounds like Radiohead (certainly not like The Bends, as some blasphemers assert). “Where I End And You Begin” and “A Punchup At A Wedding” are strictly minor league. Given Radiohead’s predilection for “The Gloaming” when assembling setlists, they obviously consider it an album highlight, but I’m still not sure I buy it 10 years later. The death march “We Suck Young Blood,” initially one of my favorites, sometimes comes off like a grueling approximation of every Radiohead skeptic’s critique. “Backdrifts” just seems like an excuse to use backwards synths.
Surely by now I’ve disparaged one of your favorites, but if so, maybe you don’t share my enthusiasm for the stuttering robo-beast “Myxomatosis,” the haunting lullaby “I Will” (a.k.a. “Like Spinning Plates” turned frontwards again), the creeping Orwellian laser-tag terror “Sit Down, Stand Up” or the majestic descending float “Scatterbrain.” You wouldn’t dare question the supremacy of “There There,” though. On a recent trip to the beach with friends, a buddy busted out an acoustic guitar after nightfall and started playing that song while a group of us were out on the back porch overlooking the Atlantic. Even without the tribal percussion (a year before Funeral and They Were Wrong So We Drowned, mind you) it raised my hair and tingled my spine. We all started singing along, and when the chorus hit — “Just ’cause you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there” — so did euphoria.
So there’s magic in this record, even if it’s a mess. These 14 tracks amount to such a tangled batch of feelings and ideas that Yorke’s pared-down alternate tracklist, posted to his blog in 2008, only makes matters worse. (You can’t move “2+2=5” out of the leadoff slot, bruh.) I’m not sure there was any way to shape this mass of music into a masterpiece. Too much going on in Yorke’s head, in the studio, in the world. But no matter how much veneer comes off Hail to the Thief with age, I keep coming back to it every year or so, always fondly, if slightly perplexed. For a record that crystallized Radiohead’s aesthetic, it doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. “The one with the identity crisis,” then?