Since "OK Computer", Radiohead spent several years fiddling with their Powerbooks and producing some of the best innovative music of these times with "Kid A" and "Amnesiac". But these albums were full of restless experimentation, and never stood still. With "Hail to the Thief" we get a sense that they've finally arrived where they wanted to be - with a sound that they're confident with. The itchy, bubbling layers of contemporary electronics are now a vital part of their music, while their more conventional chiming guitars and pianos are given equal importance here. But it's still innovative, and highly satisfying, even if it does take several listens to get under its skin.
"2+2=5" is a great opener, bursting out in the middle with an unrestrained punkish thrash. "Sit Down, Stand Up" is built on hypnotic layers of metallic sounds which crescendo up to a brilliant climax. Thom Yorke gives fans of his melancholy crooning exactly what they want with "Sail to the Moon" - an almost operatic aria with some wonderful harmonies. Another stand-out track is "Where I End And You Begin" - with some rich multi-layered drumming and a screeching electronic backdrop.
The more straightforward guitar-rock tracks include "Go to Sleep", which wouldn't have been out of place on The Bends. However its superior brother is "There There" - whose insistent riff, chorus and drumming are close to perfection. The intimate little song "I Will" recalls "You and Whose Army". Another great simpler number is "Scatterbrain", built on their familiar chiming guitar and soaring vocal line.
"We Suck Young Blood" has a sneering and sarcastic feel with some rather scary behind-the beat clapping. "A Punch Up at a Wedding" starts with a mellow bassline, which reminds me of David Sylvian. It has a good tune, but doesn't go anywhere. "Myxomatosis" is dominated by an old-fashioned techno synth sound and Thom's savage ranting. The less interesting tracks are the purer electronic ones, including the slippery "Backdrifts", and "The Gloaming", which could have ended up on Amnesiac. If it wasn't for these, this might have deserved full marks. But Radiohead always end albums with a gem, and this one is no exception. On "A Wolf at the Door" Thom's paranoid raps and rants are unrelenting, and its anthemic chorus is full of bitterness.
However the fridge-poetry cover design full of ultra-cool words is a lot less original than the music...
December 20, 2003