Hail to the Thief
[Rating: 5 stars]
Radiohead’s OK Computer tour nearly killed them. After much soul-searching, they had created one of the most beloved albums of the 20th century. However, like all good ‘90s alternative rock bands, they were mortified by success, and the conveyor belt of endless self-promotion was nearly too much for them to bear. While no one wanted Radiohead to do anything differently, for the restlessly inventive British gloom rockers, the path was clear—change or die. So they reconvened in their evil, damp castle, threw out all the rules, fed themselves a steady diet of Kraftwerk and Aphex Twin, and cranked out Kid A, the recorded birth pangs of a band undergoing a Kafka-esque metamorphosis. It, too, nearly killed them.
Where OK Computer featured rock anthems about alienation in a spiritually bankrupt world, Kid A was music for paranoid androids. Where the last two albums had been packed tightly with classics, Kid A featured tracks like “Treefingers,” three minutes and 43 seconds of ambient sound. But there was something that kept pulling you back in, and that was the albums’ deep textures and dark melodies. The heavily processed “Kid A” was a fist in the face, an open challenge to their fans. “In Limbo” was admirably atonal and discordant. “Idioteque” and “Optimistic” are apocalyptic anthems.
The quickly released follow-up, Amnesiac, featured more half-songs, but also, more stone-cold Radiohead classics, like “You and Whose Army?,” “Pyramid Song,” and the intensely gorgeous “Life in a Glasshouse,” which used a skronky jazz horn section to achieve its creepy grandeur.
Playing the new material live, back to back with their older songs, put it all in context. “Kid A” even got a melodic makeover. The band seemed to finally find some contentment, and it couldn’t have hurt that their personal Rites of Spring had been so well-received. 2003’s song cycle of Bushian angst, Hail to the Thief brought the guitar anthem back, but not without the bleeps and bloops; those were part of the landscape now. While it didn’t receive the same acclaim as its predecessors, it’s a wholly satisfying album, featuring some of the band’s strongest material (“Myxomatosis,” “2+2 = 5,” “Wolf at the Door”).
The real reason to pick up these deluxe editions are the B-sides their bundled with. Amnesiac’s “Gagging Order” is flatly gorgeous, featuring a solo Thom Yorke on acoustic guitar. “Cuttooth’s” surging rhythms sounds like a precursor to In Rainbows. Others, like “Fast-Track,” are music to go mad to.
Recently, Yorke expressed his weariness with making full albums, and hinted that the band may remain focused on singles for the time being. If that’s the case, these albums are even more precious and deserving of reverence.