In the same season that Radiohead's OK Computer was released,
I moved with my husband, infant son and Radiohead disc (along with a
few other possessions) to Brussels. I spent the first several months
in a quiet cocoon, with my husband at work, my baby asleep, and the
gray mist of Belgium shielding the light and drowning out attempts to
connect with my new city. I listened to OK Computer
incessantly, not just because I found comfort in Thom Yorke's pleas
to the clouds to rain down from a great height, but because it's the
rare kind of album that can totally envelop its listener, fitting
around whatever else is going on. I know I'm not the only one that
felt an intensely personal relationship with this CD. This was its
gift and its curse: It could be dark and secretive, while also
speaking to the masses.
When Kid A, then Amnesiac were released, the band
greeted me (and its legions of other fans) a little more coolly.
While there were plenty of moments of musical genius, and plenty of
moments when I felt the same connection to the music, Radiohead's
experimentation with electronic equipment and effects had uneven
results. The discs took a long time to warm up to, and those who
didn't have the patience dumped the discs at their local CD traders.
Hail to the Thief has been called Radiohead's return to form,
with more of the guitar rock that dominated their first two albums
and less of the techno tinkering that made the recent discs mainstays
in the secondhand bins. But it doesn't strike me as such. Granted, it
opens with the sound of a guitar being plugged in, but this disc is
still hanging to the apron strings of its two predecessors. It's a
mix of OK Computer and the later two discs, as a child is a
mix of both parents. And like a child, it has a tendency to whine.
Lots of good can come from rock bands mixing with electronica
and lots of good has come from Radiohead's techno noodling. But Thom
Yorke sings from the back of his nose more often than he does from
his gut. And without some warmth or balance from the instruments and
arrangements, the whine can become acidic.
This isn't to say that Radiohead don't have a lot to whine about.
From the title of the disc, which refers to President Bush's
questionable election results, and through each song, Yorke captures
the feeling that a wicked government and its wicked corporate
sidekicks are closing in on us, even as weird viruses, misguided
loved ones and bizarre weather patterns also keep us on edge. These
are strange and frightening times, so I can understand a little
whining. But when my CD is grousing in the background while in the
foreground my 3-year-old moans her requests for water or a Band-Aid,
I feel like screaming at both of them to lighten up.
This is, perhaps, exactly what the band wants to achieve. The music
is not catchy not even all that likeable at first.
Fair-weather fans are immediately weeded out. But, for those who
persist, with each listen, some lyric or sound catches the light and
starts to shimmer. The single, "There There," is a good example of
how this worked for me. Its fuzzy guitar sounds bland for Radiohead,
and Yorke's voice heads pretty high here. But after a few listens, I
noticed that as he warns "There's always a siren, singing you to
shipwreck," I noticed the sirens in the background (likely a few band
members), and their voices stayed in my head after I left the disc.
It's a tiny moment in the overall song, but it beckoned me back to
the disc, which from then on took on a new light.
"The Gloaming," buried in the middle of the disc, is one of the
tracks that continues the band's bend toward techno even
perfects it. Like many of the songs that make up the disc, this one
is intensely paranoid. The computerized blips come from every
direction, though the music is mostly driven by a glitchy blend of
static and thumping. It's part Pole, part 1980s horror-film
soundtrack and one of the most compelling on the CD. Yorke
sings about the witching hour, which is upon us now that the genie's
been let out of the bottle, in an echoing voice. As the music builds,
he sings, "Your alarm bells should be ringing; they should be
ringing," over and over. The music crackles brilliantly; the song
could actually do without the vocals and stand alone. This is also
true of "Backdrifts," which is built around a backward-playing loop,
and the end of "Sit Down Stand Up," where Yorke sings, "The
raindrops, the raindrops" urgently and breathlessly against a jungle
One of the few songs to come from Yorke's gut rather than the back of
his throat is "Where I End and You Begin." It's driven by a deep,
rhythmic combination of bass guitar and drums, with a wailing wall of
keyboards and effects behind. Yorke paints an eerie picture of the
isolation at the end of a relationship: It's a desolate spot, where
dinosaurs roam the earth. He sings, "I am up in the clouds/ And I
can't/ I can't come down/ I can watch but not take part/ Where I end
and where you start." Then anger sets in, and Yorke chants, "I will
eat you alive/ And there'll be no more lies."
The last two songs on the disc do what Radiohead do best
foretelling doom and gloom amidst swirling guitars and keyboards. "A
Wolf at the Door" alternates the pleasing and melodic guitars with a
fast, monotoned nightmare narrative. It sounds like Yorke is rapping,
but not in any kind of urban way. The keyboard phrase that repeats
over and over gives a weirdly theatrical affect to the violent
description of an approaching wolf. It's like a soundtrack for one of
those gruesome Victorian fairy tales meant to scare children
straight. But Yorke can't maintain the tough-guy stance that leans
toward rapping. As the excitement builds and his delivery becomes
faster, you can hear the high-pitched intakes of breath and the
panic. He's still a tortured artist and nerd, talking in maths and
buzzing like a fridge.