Hail to the Thief presents a raw, unpolished version of what some would consider vintage Radiohead.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. To a certain subset of fans, Radiohead were supposed to be the band that saved rock ‘n’ roll. They were supposed to point rock music in a bold, expansive new direction. Instead, they committed an unforgivable sin: they stopped playing guitars. While Kid A (and, to a lesser extent, Amnesiac) did exactly what Radiohead fans had hoped, they did so by leaving the conventions of rock music behind. And though those records deservedly found a loving audience, some of the band’s diehard fans—especially those in their native UK—wondered if they would ever again properly rock the way that they had on The Bends and OK Computer. In that sense, Hail to the Thief seems designed to assuage those fears. Guitars are more often than not the centerpiece of the album, and there are more than a few moments of rock-fueled catharsis. However, Radiohead didn’t leave their new, more experimental direction completely behind on Hail to the Thief. As a result, the album feels more like a summation of past ideas than a true step forward, and it occasionally gives the impression that Radiohead were trying to be all things to all people.
Everything about Hail to the Thief seemed to be about immediate release of tension. The album itself was conceived under high-pressure circumstances as the band struggled with the idea of creating what Thom Yorke called a “spontaneous” record while also trying to circumvent the pressures of how the album would be received. In contrast to the labor-intensive studio work behind Kid A and Amnesiac, Thief was recorded almost entirely live with minimal overdubs. The album took two weeks to record, supposedly as part of Yorke’s edict to keep the album as succinct as possible. At 14 tracks and over an hour in length, it’s obvious that Radiohead didn’t hold to the “succinct” rule, but this off-the-cuff approach to recording helped the band create the sort of record that they hadn’t made before and that they haven’t made since.
At times, Hail to the Thief presents a raw, unpolished version of what some would consider vintage Radiohead. Opener “2 + 2 = 5” blasts through with a surge of cacophonous guitars and politically-driven rage that does what “Electioneering” aimed to do in 1997, but properly. Conversely, “There There” allows its tension to build slowly, drawing things out for an unnerving four minutes before the release finally comes. Even songs that seem more low-key in nature, like the folky “Go to Sleep” or the rhythm-focused “Where I End and You Begin,” look to build and release tension rather than create and ruminate on textures. At its best, Hail to the Thief achieves something close to the directness of punk rock, albeit filtered through the band’s cerebral approach to songwriting.
However, Radiohead were far from leaving their electronic experimentations behind. Amnesiac featured some tentative attempts to merge their moody electronic textures with more dynamic, guitar-based songs, but the band sounds more fully committed to that approach on Thief. Some of the finest moments on the album come with the synthesis of the organic and the electronic, such as the slow, nervy escalation of “Sit Down. Stand Up.” or the freewheeling chaos of “Myxomatosis.” These shifts are jarring when placed alongside the more straightforward rock songs, which might have been the point. Unease is the flavor of the day on all of Hail to the Thief, but it’s debatable whether or not shifting the listener around the way that the band does here makes for an affecting record. As it is, these tonal and stylistic shifts only serve to make the album seem like more of a mess.
Lyrically, though, the album succeeds in creating that air of uncertainty and paranoia. Given the album’s title—a not-so-subtle reference to George W. Bush’s contested path to the presidency—one would worry that Thief would date itself in some way. However, the themes tackled on the album have a relevance that stretches far beyond the buildup to the war in Iraq or any of the plethora of incidents in American and British politics that may have inspired the band. Yorke plays with ideas about surveillance states (“2 + 2 = 5,” with the on-the-nose Orwell reference to boot), powerlessness in the face of authority (“Go to Sleep”) and blind faith guiding fools towards doom (“There There”). Through it all, Yorke grapples with uncertainty and a sense that the world he lives in isn’t what he once thought it was. Danger lurks around every corner, and the people supposedly protecting Yorke’s nervy protagonist are either disinterested or actively trying to harm him. Meanwhile, the wolf is at the door, and Yorke has no option but to give in to its demands.
The despondency with which Hail to the Thief ends is surprising, even for a band with a reputation for misery. However, for all of the miserable experiences detailed on OK Computer and Kid A, both of those albums ended with a glimmer of hope, or at least an acceptance that things would eventually get better. Thief doesn’t provide such closure, nor does it act as a call to arms in the way that protest music normally does. As always, Radiohead used experimental takes on rock tropes to confront unsettling truths about the world, but they can’t see a way out in this instance. Whether driven by the dire status of global affairs in the early 2000s or their own alleged inner turmoil (the band debated breaking up shortly after the release of the album), Radiohead looked ahead and couldn’t see any way forward.