Contrary to most, if I had to choose one Radiohead album to take to the desert island, it would be Kid A (Capitol, 2000), not OK Computer (Capitol, 1997). "Everything in Its Right Place," with tones that could have come from the best Warp recordings, was to a fan of other producers (Boards of Canada, Aphex Twin) who've used electronic instrumentation to explore melody warm, inviting and not the least bit strange. The band had, indeed, taken a leap, but it was not at all into the unknown, given the right point of reference from the listener.
For those of us whose tastes straddle the intersection where musical styles meet, this exploration, or evolution, made perfect sense. "Everything in Its Right Place" sounded just right. As did "Kid A," which may have filtered its vocals, turning words into texture, but which communicated, in its instrumentals, a wide-open, sonically optimistic twinkle.
And, just to provide those early-period Radiohead purists a last nail for this review (and this reviewer), I think "Idioteque" may be one of this band's most exciting songs, both in its live and recorded forms. And I believe, when it's all said and done, that it will stand sturdily with their other iconic tunes.
(For the record though: I loved Kid A, and believe both the electronic stuff and the more traditionally arranged songs fit together seamlessly, making for a complete, cohesive album. I don't think Amnesiac adds up the same way.)
So, with that out of the way, you can be assured that this review isn't going to lament where the band was with the "electric" albums versus where they went the "electronic" albums versus where their latest, Hail to the Thief (Capitol, 2003) leaves them.
It's never that simple, especially when you factor in the way they can play it all live. Producing Kid A and Amnesiac, at least the parts that aren't straight-ahead rockers ("The National Anthem," "Optimistic," "I Might Be Wrong," "Knives Out") may have entailed a lot of solo noodling on the studio computers, but the songs remain rooted to the same group of supremely talented musicians.
They were accused of retreating to the studio for good, for sure. Right? No. When they toured behind those records they played the hell out of songs people had deemed too inaccessible, impossible to recreate. They know their tunes' DNA better than anyone, and that makes it possible to take something like "Packt Like Sardines...," and re-imagine it as a loud, fuzzy jam. Or strip bare "Like Spinning Plates," turning it into a delicate ballad, just a man on the piano. And then there's the aforementioned "Idioteque" which seems to pump band and fans up equally when those drums are first purely struck. Live, it becomes chaotic, with Thom Yorke leaping madly around the stage, drawing you into his euphoric release. Don't those sorts of collisions disparate tributaries rushing exhilaratingly toward one another mark rock music at its best?
And where does all of that leave Radiohead besides drowning in all the ink directed their way?
Hail to the Thief, while a few songs too long, is a good album, and an encouraging place to find this band that has, fairly or unfairly, so much riding on each new album. Maybe it's wrong to say this about a group that's been deemed our "important" band, but I think the fact that lots of HTTT's songs rock loosely and, as far as giant sonic statements go, insignificantly, might be the album's most significant development. Radiohead sound as relaxed, at least in parts, as they have since The Bends (Capitol, 1995).
It's great to hear a song like "A Punchup at a Wedding" wander, its disgusted narrator quietly starting trouble. Or the single, "There There," rumble along on multi-layered percussion.
Someone in the band said they're just now playing at the height of their powers, and it sounds like it. They've been exploring, and will continue to do so, as more (and less) traditional arrangements are coming together not only on the same album, as they did on Kid A and Amnesiac, but, on something like "Sit Down. Stand Up.," on the same song.
After a triangle signals "go," that track builds to a crescendo of noise with piano, with drums, with bass on the back of Thom Yorke's clean, clear vocals, sounding as good as he ever has. But rather than a raging guitar solo, it's a programmed drum break, thumping furiously before being met again by guitars grinding and drums pounding and, all the while, Yorke repeating, "The raindrops, the raindrops, the raindrops," calling upon it all to fall down, together.
In other places, like "2+2=5," their most aggressive song in years perhaps ever they just fucking kill it. A band playing at the height of their power. Indeed. When, about two minutes in, the ominously reverberating guitar crashes into the beat, the frenzy, they move as fast, as sure, as any of the young ones reaching for their crown. "2+2=5," a beautiful way to kick this album off, is a reward for pressing play.
There are other triumphs too. "Where I End and You Begin," and its trip back to the moody '80s sad rock clad in black a nod to late heroes like Joy Division and early U2, when they were still picking fights is engrossing and affecting.
And what about "Myxomatosis" and its "Tom Sawyer"-like wall-of-sound arena rock?
Or "Sail to the Moon," another stunning ballad (giving "Pyramid Song" a run for its money), laid down as if effortless, as if these songs just grew on trees.
Rather than make a statement about where the band currently stands, Radiohead's Hail to the Thief seems to be asking a question, confidently, as much to its listeners as to the band itself: Where shall we go now?
Lead the way, lads, we're right behind you.