Dusting 'Em Off
Revisiting an album, a film, or an event on its anniversary

Dusting ‘Em Off: Radiohead – Hail to the Thief

on March 27, 2011, 10:37am

And so Jonny Greenwood plugged his guitar in, and it was good. – Album Six, 1:1

I miss the days when placing the word “album” directly before “leak” didn’t make a lick of sense. Perhaps there was an isolated case of someone pouring a drink into the record sleeve of Then and Now…The Best of The Monkees, causing his parents to look on in horror as the soda leaked out along with the damaged long player (I maintain my innocence). But we live in a different era, where world news appears to us in real time, up-to-date sports scores are ours for the taking, and it no longer takes a trip to the library to tell you about oscillococcinum. Gone are the days of waiting outside record stores until midnight for the long-awaited release of your favorite band’s latest record.

The last time I remember participating in this midnight rush was in early June 2003. After a long day at work, I hopped in my Sunfire and drove to Virgin Megastore, another casualty in the brave new world of album leaks. Once there, I wandered around for a bit. I took an escalator up to the magazine and book sections before coming back down to the front of the store, where the album I had been longing to possess would finally be mine– providing I had the money to pay for it, of course. I did. The album was Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief, an album with such a variety of highs and lows that it’s hard to compare it to any other album in their discography.

I drove around downtown Orlando all night listening to it. My opinion hasn’t changed too much from that initial experience. Sometimes an album clicks immediately, and Hail to the Thief grabbed my attention from the moment I heard the great Jonny Greenwood plug his guitar in for the opening track, “2+2=5”. I have the same feeling now that I did eight years ago: It’s great hearing guitars in all their fury once more.

“Sit Down, Stand Up” still soaks with its torrential downpour as the song reaches its climax. Coupled with the raucous “2+2=5”, the album brought forth Radiohead 3.0, a strange amalgamation of The Bends and Kid A. Rhythm guitars, bass, and drums share, if not equal, then close to equal time with their electronic brethren. Only when “Backdrifts” and “The Gloaming” pop up do the latter take over completely.

The strongest of the two piano-led tracks is “Sail to the Moon”, a lovely ballad with touches here and there from guitarists Greenwood and Ed O’Brien. With its allusions to building an ark, the song could very well be about Yorke’s son. It devours the soul-sucking borefest of “We Suck Young Blood”…which sucks. Unfortunately for Hail to the Thief, it isn’t alone in its mess.

Hail to the Thief should have been 10 tracks. In addition to “We Suck Young Blood”, the record could rid itself of “I Will” and “Scatterbrain”. The former has an “L.A. Version” that found itself on a B-side compilation, and it should have taken the original with it. It isn’t a bad song; it just doesn’t fit the flow of the album. ”Scatterbrain” is placed as the album’s penultimate track. Such placement should put us on a train whose conductor has announced its last stop is just up ahead. This particular song puts you on the same train, but the conductor has fallen asleep at the wheel. It’s too laid back with the band on autopilot; guitars, bass, and percussion share the blame as none of their players do anything interesting. It’s a song that…wait…I’ve already forgotten its existence. It must have been a truly boring and forgettable one.

Also, while we’re nitpicking, they can pick between “Backdrifts” and “The Gloaming”. Both tracks are very beat-heavy, relying on the computer to supply the emotion. One of these tracks is sufficient, but two suck the life out of the momentum. They mastered this type of track on their next album, in the form of “15 Step”, with its skittering beats and massive human contribution (see: rhythm section).

Despite the negativity clouding the last couple of paragraphs, Hail to the Thief is still a good album. The tribal rhythms of “There There”, the disciplined percussion of drummer Phil Selway in “Where I End and You Begin”, and the neck-snapping guitar of “Go to Sleep”, among other moments, prevent this from being a disposable album. It isn’t the band’s finest hour, but it’s far from their worst.

It’s easy to anticipate another Radiohead album. These days, they sort of pop them out when you least expect it – something that’s admittedly refreshing. However, maybe the next release will see the band keeping it “old school.” Perhaps they’ll have a midnight release party like it’s 2003. (Would you put it past them? They’re releasing a newspaper tomorrow.) Maybe I’ll find out who currently owns my Sunfire, borrow it, and drive to the local record store and pick up LP9. Of course, at this rate, will there be any record stores left? Probably not. It’s just a different era now.