With a catalog as hallowed as Radiohead’s, nearly every album has its acolytes. Save, perhaps, the “they weren’t quite themselves yet” prologue of Pablo Honey and maybe the now-sidelined The King Of Limbs, you wouldn’t be pressed to find people who locate Radiohead’s singular masterpiece at any given point in their career. You still have the people who prefer the early, more rock-oriented Radiohead of The Bends and OK Computer, and those who just as fervently uphold the turn-of-the-millennium freakout of Kid A as the band’s most visionary work. Its quick followup sequel Amnesiac has long been mythologized as the one that’s maybe secretly their best. (It’s not.) Many of my fellow millennials hold In Rainbows dear as “our” Radiohead album, and there are days where I want to argue the otherworldly A Moon Shaped Pool is the gorgeous, underrated conclusion to almost everything in Radiohead’s arc. And then there is Hail To The Thief, which, ever since it arrived 20 years ago today, may be the Radiohead album the band and fans alike have wrangled over the most.
Though The King Of Limbs is plenty divisive, debates around that album seem to center on what could’ve been, or the stratospheric expectations following In Rainbows. Hail To The Thief presents the opposite problem: Compared to the perception that Radiohead gave too little on TKOL, Hail was as messily sprawling as the conversations that would eventually surround it. It remains the only peak-era Radiohead album that is less of a conceptual whole and more of a grab-bag featuring every version of the band. In an era where we now wait five or six years not knowing if Radiohead will even release another album, they had been on a tear — Kid A, Amnesiac, and Hail To The Thief came out within less than three years. The album now stands as an epilogue to Radiohead’s initial run and ascension, before In Rainbows rebooted them for a new generation.
After the laborious sessions that begat Kid A and Amnesiac, Radiohead were trying to loosen up. Nigel Godrich suggested they decamp to Los Angeles, which was and remains a hilarious image; it is nearly impossible to imagine Radiohead making their music in sunny Southern California. Yet at the time, they were having fun with it — Ed O’Brien (misleadingly, as it turns out) insinuated it would be a return to their simpler, more guitar-oriented days, and Thom Yorke would later tell Rolling Stone that the music on the album was “jubilant.” The band gathered for a two-week session and knocked out a song almost every day. Everything was meant to be there, in the studio — no complicated computer work, no overdubs. The ideas tumbled out. Naturally, they still pored over the material back home in England, but Godrich estimates “about a third” of the rough mixes are what you actually hear on Hail.
As is Radiohead’s tendency, several of these tracks had been around for years and had been road-tested already. Still, the approach was unimaginable compared to the Radiohead of the then-recent past, who painstakingly crafted era-defining works and pushed themselves to innovate each time. Hail To The Thief was a loose album, freewheeling in nature if not always worldview and BPM. As many noted at the time and since, this was not the sound of Radiohead taking another leap forward — something they expressly said they weren’t interested in this time around. This was them doing a bit of everything they already knew how to do well.
At nearly an hour in length and featuring 14 tracks, Hail To The Thief gave longtime Radiohead listeners a lot of room to deliberate over the relative quality of the songs. In summarizing their past, you could relegate plenty of these songs to also-ran status. Perhaps I’m one of the people who has warmer feelings towards this album, given that it was my initial Radiohead gateway drug before In Rainbows materialized later in high school. Twenty years on, the advantage of Hail To The Thief seems to be how so much of it is lesser-overturned. “Sit Down Stand Up” and “Backdrifts” travel Radiohead’s well-worn roads of electronic experimentation, but there is something more atmospheric and less icy than their counterparts on Kid A and Amnesiac. “Sail To The Moon” is a starlit escapism lullaby, “Myxomatosis” a distorted seether that became a gripping live staple. And the Radiohead hill I’ll die on is that “Where I End And You Begin” is one of their most criminally overlooked songs — both sinuous and vaporous, it’s propelled on the twin currents of Philip Selway’s drums looking for a New Order rhythm and Jonny Greenwood’s Ondes Martenot sounding like wind weaving through a decayed forest.
These days, it seems a foregone conclusion that Hail To The Thief is the shaggy, flawed album in Radiohead’s history. While you might quibble about which songs to cut, pretty much everyone seems to agree that the album’s primary failing is that it could’ve used a bit more editing — that this time around, it was right to embrace the ease of the process, but maybe they should have challenged that ease just a bit. “We Suck Young Blood” was the momentum-killing dirge, “I Will” a non-entity, “A Punch Up At The Wedding” a cool groove without a chorus. The band members themselves have wrung their hands over this since, often talking about the album as one where they could’ve hunkered down a bit more. Yorke himself once shared a blog post trimming the tracklist, making the (obviously objectively correct) decision to cut the above three tracks.
There are a few things it seems we can all agree on though. The vast expanse of Hail To Thief was held down by three pillars across the album, each of them a Radiohead all-timer. Flowing seamlessly from the fourth-wall-breaking sound of a guitar plugging in, “2+2=5” was an effortless banger of an opener. “There There” was their alternate universe version of a krautrock ballad, an evocative sigh that has rightfully become regarded as one of their crowning achievements. At the end of the album, there was “A Wolf At The Door,” a surreal song with Yorke whiplashing from paranoid sing-speak verses to a beautiful, desperate lilt of a chorus. Contrary to Radiohead’s assessment, much of Hail To The Thief still sounded plenty bleak — and “A Wolf At The Door” played like both dream and nightmare at the end of it all.
It was a perfect denouement to an album that was not just all over the place musically but was also the product of a uneasy, scattered headspace. While Radiohead had already partially made their name on end-times anxiety, the looming apocalypse presented by OK Computer or Kid A was so all-encompassing that it almost felt abstract. Hail To The Thief, with its topical title, was a more direct reaction to the events of the early ’00s: the fiasco of Bush’s first election, 9/11, the burgeoning surveillance state and war on terrorism. Newly a father, Yorke felt galvanized and worried in a different way than before — considering the world that would be left for his young son. While not polemic, Hail To The Thief is riddled with what he called a “thinly veiled anger,” often communicated in the language of children. Yorke turned to fairytales and fables, partially recalibrated to show the darkness always underneath those old stories, but partially a way of depict the world in the only way it made sense: so ghoulish and confusing it must be a twisted fantasy. Though the circumstances were different, it sneakily makes Hail To The Thief one of the Radiohead albums that has aged particularly well spiritually — its upside-down dystopia is all too legible 20 years later.
On the other hand, Hail To The Thief is one of those albums that feels every bit its 20 years. Anytime one of these anniversaries comes up, recalling the context is important — but it’s particularly easy to underestimate or forget how different the climate was in 2003. Yorke spent a lot of time fielding questions from people barely hiding their disagreement (or disdain) for him vocally opposing the Iraq War; it’s bizarre to see Yorke often saying he was trying to avoid being political but couldn’t help it creeping into the songs. (You should really read that Rolling Stone article — it is full of time-warp doozies, considering Yorke’s stance toward the war back then is much gentler than the position the mainstream populace has since adopted.)
Though those conflicts eventually ceded to new ones, the climate Radiohead captured on Hail To The Thief has metastasized and reared its head again and again. It is not resolved; nor is the album’s place in the band’s history. While acknowledging their misgivings around the album, individual members came to characterize it as a stopgap, a transition from the wild experimentation of Kid A/Amnesiac and finding their way back to their own version of a center on In Rainbows. There were more functional turning points too: Hail was Radiohead’s final album of their record deal, and after unfinished recordings leaked, the band was so burnt that it partially influenced the game-changing pay-what-you-want approach to In Rainbows’ release four years later. Whether in execution or distribution, the band has operated totally on their own wavelength for these last 20 years. No matter how you regard Hail To The Thief today, it was the final throat-clearing of a younger, still searching Radiohead. It wrapped up one era, leaving their future wide open.