A couple of years ago, Senior Staff Writer Justin Gerber originally dusted off Radiohead’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?
Nick Freed (NF): At this point, the mythos of Radiohead casts a tall shadow over any other aspect of the band. Their albums are filled with cryptic lyrics and themes, and they even created a music video that caused fans to consult experts to find out just what someone mouthed in it. On top of that, Thom Yorke and company have added hidden messages in album artwork and their website that leaves fans busy for months.
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?