A couple of years ago, Senior Staff Writer Justin Gerber originally dusted offRadiohead’s sixth studio album, 2003′s Hail to the Thief. In light of said album’s 10th anniversary this Sunday, staff writers Nick Freed and Zach Schonfeld expressed interest in revisiting the UK collective’s polarizing artifact and dig deeper into its complicated blueprint, both politically and sociologically. We figured, why not?
One album that bucked the trend, and confronted issues head on, was 2003′s Hail to the Thief. The music was written as a direct response, or backlash in some members’ minds, to the isolation and technology from Kid A and Amnesiac. It was recorded mostly live, and, to the joy of some fans, with guitars and actual instruments. Yorke wrote the lyrics to reflect the confusion and anger he felt during the volatile times of Gulf War pt. 2, the Bush administration, and the rise of right wing politics in the U.S. and the U.K. It was York at his most transparent and most vitriolic. The album was recorded and released in record time for the band, and shortly after they somewhat lamented the expedited process.
It’s been a decade, and two albums later, but Hail to the Thief still stands as one of the most debated albums in the Radiohead canon. Zach, what were your thoughts on this album around the time it came out?
Zach Schonfeld (ZS): It’s funny — I was just thinking that Hail to the Thief feels like the last hotly anticipated Radiohead LP, what with all the build-up and speculation before it dropped, but then I realized that’s because it’s the last Radiohead album to have been released on a label with a conventional release date and pre-release promotion. We don’t remember biting our fingernails weeks before In Rainbows or King of Limbs came out because both were sprung on fans and self-released online. That’s not such a radical move today — hey, Beck just announced he’s self-releasing two albums — but in 2007 it sort of was. I think a lot of that can be traced back to the band’s displeasure regarding Hail to the Thief (or some early mix thereof)leaking, which sort of feels like the end of an era for Radiohead and for the music industry more broadly.
I can pretty vividly remember the anticipation and hysteria in the weeks leading up to Hail to the Thief’s June release. I was a precocious young music nerd at the time, and I’d only recently fallen for The Bends and OK Computer, which, for me, were gateway drugs to pretty much anything more psychedelic or forward-thinking than Californication.
You write, “it was recorded mostly live, and, to the joy of some fans, with guitars and actual instruments.” I seem to recall a lot of bickering and speculating on message boards (and in interviews with the band) over whether or not the record would be a return to “rock” or not. There were the fans who were alienated by the last two records and just wanted to hear some guitars, and then there were the fans who had embraced the experimental, synth-driven side of the band and feared Radiohead repeating themselves. Clearly recorded way quicker than Kid A or OK Computer — with a sense of urgency, impatience, and choppiness that doesn’t really appear on any other Radiohead album — Hail to the Thief seems like an attempt to confuse or challenge both camps simultaneously and mock the whole schism.
I mean, let’s start at the beginning — the album literally starts with a guitar being plugged into an amp and someone mumbling, “That’s a nice way to start, Jonny.” I never listened to the unfinished leak (probably because my parents had warned me never to download anything ever), so this was what I heard when I first streamed the album on VH1.com. Full of an anxiety that more subtly pervades the whole record, the song is probably the first real Radiohead rocker since “Electioneering”. It explodes into that fantastic “YOU HAVE NOT BEEN/ PAY’N-ATTENTION” bit (which more than a few critics misheard as “Penetration! Penetration! Penetration!”), and then all of a sudden it stops, and you’ve got glitchy tantrums like “Sit Down, Stand Up” and “Backdrifts” to contend with.
What do you make of that? Is that Thom Yorke’s idea of a joke at his fans’ expense? More than any other Radiohead album, Hail to the Thief feels like it anticipates, acknowledges, and plays games with fans’ anxieties and expectations regarding what a Radiohead album should be, which may be why the experience of anticipating Hail to the Thief is so vividly tied to the album itself in my mind — and why it feels like such a relic of a lost era, before Spotify and NPR’s “First Listen”, when fans still lined up at the record store and felt guilty about downloading leaks. It also feels like it was recorded and sequenced quickly (it was), full of a sense of spontaneity that really separates it from Kid A. Everything about “2+2=5” sounds hurried and even unfinished, in a sense — it’s such a far cry from measured, patient openers like “Everything In Its Right Place” and “Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box”.
Which is all to say, I felt confused when I first heard Hail to the Thief. Is it a rock album? Another Kid A? What’s with the bizarre parenthetical subtitles? What the fuck do all the words on the cover mean? Ten years later, I realize confusion is sort of the point. Musically and lyrically, it’s the most confused and confusing album Radiohead has ever made. Yorke’s words are tortured, the songs leap between genres without much care for flow or continuity, and the whole thing eludes easy characterization. As you suggest, I suspect that confusion relates to global and political tensions at the time of its recording. What say you?
NF: I definitely agree that it was the end of an era for them. After this, and after the displeasure with the leak, the band kind of vowed to not deal with big labels anymore. It changed how Radiohead, and in turn many other bands, do business.
It’s an interesting sort of evolution they went through before, during, and after this album. It was all about reactions and keeping ahead of themselves. The recording was a reaction to self-imposed isolation. The music is definitely a combination of styles, but I don’t think it’s a joke on the fans. I think it was a totally logical evolution and next step from escaping the machines and putting a more human feel on the album, but at the same time keeping the malleable nature of electronic instruments. This album set up the experiment that was completed with In Rainbows of combining electronic and live instruments; of being able to make the music human, but still expand their sonic capability.
I also remember being very excited for the release, and all of my friends and I avoiding the leak like the plague. It was an interesting time because we all usually grab leaks at the first chance we could, but this one we knew we had to wait. I think HttT also somewhat ended the leak obsession with a lot of people. The backlash from the band and the immediate knowledge that it was an unfinished copy helped. How do you think it has held up compared to the newer albums, and also with canon as a whole?
ZS: Perhaps I misspoke: I didn’t mean to suggest “2+2=5” is a joke. But I do think the song purposefully acknowledges and plays with fans’ expectations, and I sense that self-aware and self-referential edge throughout the record. Just as it starts with “That’s a nice way to start, Jonny,” it ends with “I wish you’d get up, get over, and turn the tape off” before the last chorus of “A Wolf at the Door”. And it probably is the first Radiohead album with songs that could have been culled from previous albums — “Backdrifts” and “The Gloaming” could well be Kid A B-sides (the former was apparently built from a loop Yorke created before those sessions), “Where I End and You Begin” and “Go To Sleep” are reminiscent of OK Computer, and “Sail to the Moon” could easily be swapped with “Pyramid Song” on Amnesiac.
If you traveled through time and played me this album in 2002, you could have convinced me it was a Radiohead B-sides and rarities collection — not because the quality is anything less than stellar (as are most of Radiohead’s actual B-sides, for that matter), but because it’s so stylistically torn. Is the sequencing unfinished as well, as you called it — or is it just purposefully all-over-the-place, like Radiohead’s own Sign o’ the Times or White Album, if you will?
Even while the songs are so different from each other, though, many of them bring the band to sonic extremes that you won’t find on In Rainbows or King of Limbs, which are relatively smoother rides all the way through. “We Suck Young Blood”, for example, feels like Thom set out to write the creepiest, slowest, gloomiest dirge imaginable. “Myxomatosis” is the closest Radiohead will ever come to math-rock or noise-rock, I suspect. “A Wolf at the Door” actually finds Thom Yorke rapping. Nothing about the album feels settled, comfortable, or smooth. It’s a journey, and a jarring, often tortured one.
You write that Hail to the Thief “set up the experiment that was completed with In Rainbows of combining electronic and live instruments.” I think you’re right, but HttT didn’t quite complete the cycle — there’s still a dichotomy between the rock songs (“Go To Sleep”, “There There”, “2+2=5”, etc) and the electronic songs (“Backdrifts”, “The Gloaming”, “Sit Down, Stand Up”), but not too much convergence between those categories. (This relates to what I was saying about HttT as an album of extremes, with little interest in fluidity or stylistic continuity.) With In Rainbows, I think, the band successfully managed to merge Radiohead the Rock Band and Radiohead the Sonic Manipulators into one fluid whole. Hail to the Thief is much rougher around the edges and, again, I think that speaks to the lyrical and political anxiety clouding the album.
So let’s talk about the lyrics. You write that HttT reflects the “confusion and anger” in political affairs at the time and that it finds Yorke “at his most transparent and most vitriolic.” Which is funny, because I find that as much as HttT is Radiohead’s most overtly political record (a fact discernible from the title alone), it’s also full of Yorke’s most cryptic and stream-of-consciousness-like lyrics. Odd phrases, frightening imagery, and terse commands are strewn together and often subject to intense repetition (like the “paying attention” bit in “2+2=5” or the entirety of “Sit Down, Stand Up”). And then there’s the weird obsession with physical disfigurement and cannibalism: “I will eat you alive/ I will eat you alive/ I will eat you alive/ I will eat you alive” and “We want the sweet meats” and so forth. Yorke has a strange way of capturing world affairs in code — or do you think the record is more directly political elsewhere? Is “A Wolf at the Door” an allegory?
As far as how it has held up, I think Hail to the Thief still feels more tied to a specific global and political moment than any other Radiohead album (except, of course, Pablo Honey, which will always be an early ‘90s artifact). But it also feels like a coda to Radiohead’s most tortured and overtly experimental period. Something about In Rainbows and King of Limbs feels more comfortable, more rounded, less interested in pushing the boundaries of what Radiohead can and should be.
NF: Oh yeah, I definitely didn’t think you meant it as an actual joke, I’m just not sure how conscious of a play it is on the fans is all. There’s a good chance of that as Thom does mess with his fans online on occasion. That’s also a great bookend with “A Wolf at the Door” that I never really thought of. As far as sequencing goes, Thom did go back later and rearrange the track listing to better fit what he thought it should be:
sail to the moon
sit down. stand up
go to sleep
a wolf at the door
Which, when you look at it, the removal of “2+2=5″ as an intro completely changes the tone of the album. In fact, it helps the flow of guitar rock vs. electronic bleeps and bloops.
As for the politics, there’s the overwhelming sense of paranoia and anger here. If you look at the subtitles of the tracks, it becomes more apparent. “2+2=5 (The Lukewarm)” is a call to Dante’s Inferno and the people who are The Lukewarm and the ones who did nothing must always remain on the outside. In other words, they did nothing to help or to harm so they get stuck in purgatory. What’s more, the title itself — 2+2=5 — is lifted from 1984, which alludes to this ensuing idea that the government is watching ala The Patriot Act and wire taps and yada, yada, yada.
Yes, the politics are a little more metaphorical and not so direct, but it’s heavier here than on any other album of theirs. It’s, like you said, a reactive feeling to the times of the early aughts — a snapshot, or a rude awakening. Look no further than “Wolf at the Door”, which Yorke once described as “sort of like waking you up at the end … Rather than waking you up and it’s like ‘uhh, it’s all been a lovely dream’… no, it’s all been a nightmare and you need to go and get a glass of water now.” Again, this isn’t an easy world to live in that he’s created, but neither was ours.
On the other hand, I totally agree that it’s the coda to their more tortured times. The band admits that. They say that Kid A, Amnesiac, and Hail put them in a tunnel and In Rainbows was them breaking out of said tunnel. So, in hindsight, Hail to the Thief was their last expulsion of that torment, and it certainly shows still to this day.