Radiohead – Classic Music Review: Hail to the Thief

Although the title Hail to the Thief refers to the stolen 2000 U. S. presidential election and the subsequent madness known as the War on Terror, Thom Yorke has strenuously denied that the album is in any way a political statement.

Hmm. Let’s check the veracity of that bold assertion, she said, admiring her facility with pompous synonyms.

If you compare the songs on Hail to the Thief to the protest songs in Phil Ochs’ catalog, Yorke has a point. Phil’s anti-establishment songs fall into three categories: those dealing with current affairs (murders of civil rights activists in Mississippi, the Chicago convention riots, the Vietnam War); those celebrating the people who “fought the good fight” against the moneychangers and warmongers; and those calling for systemic upheaval. If you use those three qualities to define the protest song genre, none of the songs on Hail to the Thief qualify as protest songs. “I Will” and “Sit Down. Stand Up” come closest, but the lyrics make no mention of the specific events motivating the lyrics—you have to research the backstory to figure it out. There are no references anywhere to heroes of the Resistance, and unlike Phil Ochs and his fellow travelers, Radiohead doesn’t spend a second arguing for massive socio-political change.

Score one for Thom!

Stronger support for the argument that Hail to the Thief is apolitical can be found in the songs themselves. If there is an underlying theme to Hail to the Thief, it’s helplessness. Many of the songs capture the common human reaction to the nightmare of modern politics and governance—WHAT THE FUCK?—and the natural consequence of that reaction: LEAVE ME THE FUCK OUT OF IT. Screw trying to make things better with these clowns in charge; I can’t do a damn thing about it so I’m just going to blow a big protective bubble around me and the people I love and wait this shit out. Ah, but there’s a catch! As we’ll see when we explore the individual tracks, there are unpleasant consequences to crawling into the cave and sealing the exits. If there’s a dominant mood on Hail to the Thief, it’s angst, defined by Merriam-Webster as “a feeling of anxiety, apprehension, or insecurity.”

For the last year, I have existed in a constant state of helplessness and angst because I chose to become politically active, something I never thought possible. Check my bio—my life priorities are sex, music and baseball, not fucking politics! The appalling rise of xenophobic, homophobic hatred in the form of Donald Trump led me to actively support Hillary Clinton, and we all know how that turned out: the day after the election, I renounced my American citizenship. I hardly had time to catch my breath when xenophobic hatred reared its ugly head in France through the fear-mongering fascist Marine LePen, so for the last three months I’ve spent most of my spare time supporting En Marche to secure the election of Emmanuel Macron as French president. Now that Macron has won and I don’t have to sell the house and find another EU country where I can hang my whips, chains and extensive collection of leather lingerie, I am completely done with fucking politics . . . at least for the next five years.

Here’s the thing—I know that my efforts didn’t make one fucking bit of difference: Macron still would have won had I slept through the whole campaign. My activity was simply a psychological reaction to a perceived threat, and I chose the fight response instead of the flight response. Like Prozac, it probably helped ease the anxiety, apprehension and insecurity a bit, but guess what? In the end, I still feel anxious, apprehensive and insecure about the state of our world today, as do most people. We live in a world of systems where individuals don’t matter; the only way to deal with it is to create tiny worlds where individuals do matter and relationships are the center of our universe. The risk is that by disengaging from the real world and all its cacophony, we may wind up making things worse.

Score another for Thom and a bonus point for presenting us with an unresolvable paradox!

The album opens with a chilling argument for staying engaged in the real world, no matter how fucked up and unchangeable it appears to be. “2 + 2 =5” uses the dramatic monologue form to demonstrate the negative consequences of mass exodus into escape pods: you wind up with stupid people who pride themselves in their ignorance, drench themselves in paranoia and believe ludicrous conspiracy theories like Pizzagate that wouldn’t make the cut for a B-grade film. In other words, you get Trump voters. The speaker considers any effort to make the world a better place a lost cause, and consistent with his denial of reality, grounds his belief in the superstitions of Christian mythology:

Are you such a dreamer
To put the world to rights?
I’ll sit home forever
Where two and two always makes a five

I’ll lay down the tracks
Sandbag and hide
January has April showers
And two and two always makes a five

It’s the devil’s way now
There is no way out
You can scream and you can shout
It is too late now

The music supporting the opening passage creates the necessary tension through half-step chord oscillation and harmonic intervals that defy classic harmonic rules by drifting away from the chord. The eerie falsetto in the third verse, floating over lower, indistinct voices and a mandolin-like riff, underscores the sense of the unreal and its inherent fragility. Radiohead breaks the tension with a sudden shift to all-out bash as the character explodes with a defensive response to those who question his sanity—“You have not been paying attention!” As he never reveals exactly what we should be paying attention to, we can classify this and the lyrics that follow as the ramblings of a very frightened human being who lacks confidence in both generally-accepted reality and the alternative reality he has created (hence the subtitle, “The Lukewarm”):

Oh go and tell the king that the sky is falling in
When it’s not
But it’s not
But it’s not
Maybe not
Maybe not

The most disturbing thing about this Orwellian message is that the source of the alternative fact 2 + 2 = 5 is not the state in the form of Big Brother, but most likely the bullshit you find on Fox News, Wikileaks or InfoWars.

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“Sit Down. Stand Up. (Snakes & Ladders.)” is indeed a protest song but you’d have to consult Songfacts to understand why: Thom Yorke wrote the song in response to stories about the Rwandan genocide. When you know that, the song becomes quite moving, but there aren’t any crumbs in the song that form a trail to get you to Rwanda, Burundi or anywhere in the vicinity. The African-influenced beats and what sounds like an electronic version of a mbira do give the song an African flavor, particularly in the more intense “raindrops” passage where the bass feels like it’s going to burst your eardrums. Like “2 + 2 = 5,” the song is split into a quiet and loud sections, but unlike the Pixiesque use quiet-loud in their earlier works, the quiet sections are extended builds (extended to three minutes on “Sit Down. Stand Up.”) that set up the full power display. In both songs, the meaning is intensified by this building technique—in “2 + 2 = 5,” the shift to power dramatizes the character’s self-generated instability; here the power shift reflects the overwhelming, unbearable fear of those waiting in line to meet a horrible death.

Obviously we could use something a bit more soothing right about now, and despite valid arguments concerning the track order in Hail to the Thief, the boys nailed this transition. “Sail to the Moon” is a gorgeous piece of music, featuring a guitar-piano-ondes Martenot trio that is lush and lovely, winding itself beautifully around Thom Yorke’s high-register vocal. The song is in part a search for clarity (the subtitle is “Brush the Cobwebs from the Sky”), partly a father’s wish for his son and partly an updated take on the mythology of Noah’s Ark where instead of a god sending a deluge to destroy all the sodomizers and moneyfuckers, we have a human being longing for escape from the man-made catastrophe of modern existence. The present is never far from Thom Yorke’s mind, though, as expressed in the passage where he defies citizenship barriers and reflects on his recently-born son’s future:

Maybe you’ll
Be president
But know right from wrong

I can’t believe we live in a world where we are forced to feel nostalgia for leaders with a moral compass.

“Backdrafts (Honeymoon is Over.)” is a fascinating piece where Yorke uses the imagery of being stuck in a snowstorm to reveal the psyche of a group of conspirators whose political hanky-panky is about to be exposed. The lyrics could have been borrowed from Wikileaks’ unpublished hack of the Republican National Committee:

We’re rotten fruit
We’re damaged goods
What the hell, we’ve got nothing more to lose
One gust and we will probably crumble
We’re backdrifting . . .

All evidence has been buried
All tapes have been erased
But your footsteps give you away
So you’re backtracking
Oh oh oh

I love the muffled electronic beats and throbs in this song and how the cottony sound contrasts with the largely unfiltered voice of Thom Yorke, forcing the listener to absorb the lyrics. The piano solo is also placed in the background, underscoring the sense of nefarious things going on behind the scenes. And—not that I have anyone particular in mind—how I wish that one gust could be enough to get rid of all the crooks who use public service for personal gain, but I think it’s going to take multiple gusts and some kind of revolution in human consciousness.

It’s time for that dominant female matriarchy, boys! We won’t let you get away with shit . . . and you’ll love it!

And if I were fortunate enough to earn the exalted position of Almighty Mistress of the Earth, I would immediately order a review of all music videos on YouTube and ban any and all that failed to contribute to greater understanding of the fucking song! That would eliminate 99% of the music videos in existence, restoring the basic truth that music is primarily an aural experience, and is not to be used as a soundtrack for incoherent stories filled with random shots of fake lips, fake tits, fake orgasms and BAD ACTING! I bring this up because one of the videos I intend to preserve is the video for “Go to Sleep (Little Man being Erased.),” the second single released from Hail to the Thief. I was immediately intrigued by this song the first time I heard it because of the 10/4 time signature in the passages driven by acoustic guitar, but the lyrics seemed impenetrable—a strange ramble with references to Gulliver and a classic lullaby. Once I saw the video, everything clicked into place. The scene opens with an overlay of a full red rose over the background of a city marked by classical architecture. A CGI rendition of Thom Yorke enters the scene, sits on a park bench and begins rambling and waving his arms while all the busy, busy people completely ignore his existence. Suddenly the buildings begin to collapse in what looks like a series of controlled demolitions (progress!); neither CGI Tom nor the busy, busy people pay any attention. Once the city is leveled, restoration begins with the construction of replacement buildings in characterless modern architecture. The video ends with the rose returning to foreground, its flower now closed tightly against the cold environment.

Having grown up in San Francisco, a city where busy, busy people on their way to work routinely step over the homeless sleeping on the streets and in the doorways as if they were piles of dogshit, where progress in the form of the digital age capitalism and the invasion of the nouveau riche have transformed the city into another characterless financial center, the video really hit home with me. The blind indifference we show to other human beings who have either had a bad break or suffer from treatable mental illness is something I find deeply appalling. When you combine that blind indifference to suffering with blindness to the destructive effects of progress—a condition facilitated by cultural norms that encourage greed—you create stratified communities where dehumanization is just part of the social fabric. “Go To Sleep” is a title dripping with sarcasm—the song is a wake-up call to face our self-destructive tendencies before it’s too late.

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The Greenwood brothers knock it out of the park in “Where I End and You Begin,” where Jonny demonstrates his skill with the ondes Martenot to create an irresistibly eerie soundscape while Colin’s sinuous bass line gives the piece its forward movement. The dominant image of the song is the ouroboros, the serpent swallowing its own tail, a symbol found in Egyptian and Greek mythology, in the worlds of alchemy and gnosticism, in the practice of Kundalini and in the mythological analyses of Carl Jung. The image symbolizes the cyclical nature of growth and the re-creation of self; the act of becoming involves “swallowing” (accepting) the old self and integrating it with the new. Jung linked the symbol to the process of individuation, where the integration involves acceptance of the shadow—all those dark features of our personality we do not want to accept. Given the themes explored so far, I don’t think Jung was what Thom Yorke had in mind. My take is the “gap in between” in this song is the gap between self and other. In a society in denial about the consequences of its actions, relationships—both casual and intimate—are likely to be contaminated by denial and garden-variety bullshit. The repeated fade lines—“I will eat you alive (4)/There will be no more lies” is a cry for intimacy, for unconditional love without barriers. Music and lyrics reflect the mysterious, paradoxical nature of human relationships, making “Where I End and You Begin” one of the richest pieces on the album.

Up to this point, I would argue that Hail to the Thief is worthy of inclusion in the best Radiohead album debate—and we haven’t even covered my two favorite songs! Alas and alack, before we get there we have to deal with the album’s fundamental flaws. The original approach Radiohead adopted in recording Hail to the Thief was a good one for a band who needed to balance the use of digital manipulation that dominated their two previous releases with more human spontaneity: lay down the tracks as quickly as possible and do more “live” recording in the studio to create a sense of immediacy. What tripped them up more than anything else was song selection: Hail to the Thief contains a few really bad ideas that they should have saved for that time in the distant future when Radiohead no longer releases new material and fans suffering from Radiohead withdrawal will ingest anything to relieve the jonesing. Hail to the Thief consists of fourteen tracks, and both listeners and band members have complained about the length of the album. Well, the only reason that length is the problem is that some of the songs flat out suck! Really, would you have complained about the length of a Radiohead album if all fourteen tracks were outstanding?

I’ve seen some argue that the right length would have been ten tracks; I’m going to argue for eleven. The first of the three I would cut is the song I consider the worst thing Radiohead has ever done: “We Suck Young Blood (Your Time is up.).” I’d rather have a double root canal than listen to this fucking song again. Radiohead’s fascination with slow tempos is taken to absurd extremes here—the song slithers like a slug on a cold winter’s day, in large part due to handclaps that make the song seem even slower than it is. We’re talking frozen fucking molasses here, folks! The subject matter—Hollywood exploitation—seems completely out-of-place and trivializes the more significant universal messages on the album. “We Suck Young Blood” . . . well, it just sucks.

The second track I’d wipe from the tape is definitely a thematic fit but is as boring as a guy who only knows the in-and-out move. “The Gloaming” deserves inclusion only for its symbolism, which is a piss-poor excuse if there ever was one. The slow, tape-loop only track destroys the sense of immediacy Radiohead wanted to create, and its placement after the dreariness of “We Suck Young Blood” was unconscionable. Colin Greenwood would have cut this track as well, arguing that it was one of those songs that worked live but collapsed in the studio. Having created playlists where these two tracks are eliminated, I guarantee you will have a better listening experience without them.

And since you can’t get a better listening experience than “There, There (The Boney King of Nowhere.),” eliminating the two draggy songs gets you there a helluva lot faster! The image of the sirens calling you to your death on the cold, hard rock cliffs of the treacherous passage tells us this song is about not falling prey to illusion (“Just ’cause you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there). However, even the presence of mythological horror figures fails to dampen the underlying gestalt of the song: this is one of the sexiest pieces of music ever created. Those pounding jungle drums, that rough, ripping guitar, the deep groove of the bass, Ed O’Brien’s background vocals adding a touch of 21st century Fleetwoods, Thom Yorke’s flowing lead vocal peppered with underlying tension ready to explode—shit, I’m ready to explode every time I hear this song! Let me check—where’s my fucking iPhone? Got it. Clock app. Got it. Now all I have to do is hit the stopwatch and the play button at the same time. Shit, I can’t do this—Ali! Come here! Okay, now—on the count of three, hit the start button. One, two, three! Okay, stop. Got it!

It takes 2.3 seconds for my hips to grind and my sweet spot to start glistening once “There, There” begins. Please excuse me for a few minutes—my partner’s right here, half-naked, and I never miss an opportunity. Watch the nice video from Glastonbury and I’ll be back in about six orgasms.

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Uh, I’m not done. Can you please watch the official video while I finish? It’s quite good, and the song has enormous replay value. See ya in a few!

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Whew! That hit the fucking spot! I’m having a great time with this review! Let me have a cigarette and change into a mood that’s less comfortable in preparation for the next track. Back in ten.

Ten minutes would have meant a lot of wasted vinyl, but Radiohead would have been well-advised to insert thirty seconds of silence between “There, There” and “I Will,” as I can’t think of two songs more fundamentally different. The first makes you want to get down and dirty while the second brings you to tears. Thom Yorke describes “I Will (No man’s Land.)” as “the angriest song I’ve ever written,” and his feelings of shock and outrage are more than justified. “I Will” is in some ways a companion piece to “Idioteque” on Kid A, answering the opening question of that song: “Who’s in the bunker?” The answer is families with children trying to protect themselves from American bombs, not realizing that the Americans can deploy “bunker busters” at the drop of a dollar. Having seen footage of such an attack from the First Gulf War (the one people refer to as “the good fight”), Yorke’s outrage focuses on the images of “little babies’ eyes” in an attempt to inspire a similar sense of outrage among listeners. The horrifying aspect of the song isn’t so much the imagery as it is the standard response to such barbarity: label it “collateral damage” and move on. “Were any Americans killed? No? Then who cares?”

There are things I miss about the U. S. A., but there are many more things that make me proud to say that I am not an American citizen.

“I Will” fades seamlessly into “A Punch Up at a Wedding,” where Yorke uses the ultimate social faux pas as a way to describe a world where all sense of civility and honor have collapsed into a pointless series of brawls. Sounds like a typical day at the office for the U. S. Congress! Hey! Maybe if they opened their sessions with Radiohead instead of a prayer . . . nah.

Musically, the song is pretty straightforward with a slight funk tinge, executed with precision and professionalism. The connection to the Bush-Cheney regime and their fawning supporters on Fox News can be found in the final passage—if you have access to Fox News, tune in, turn down the sound, watch the talking heads and listen to this verse—you’ll get it.

Hypocrite, opportunist
Don’t infect me with your poison
A bully in a china shop
When I turn ’round you stay frozen to the spot

The pointless snide remarks
Of hammer-headed sharks
The pot will call the kettle black
It’s a drunken punch-up at a wedding, yeah

My second favorite song on Hail to the Thief is “Myxomatosis,” and it’s not just because I’m a bass whore. Thom Yorke has demonstrated a long-standing affinity for strange characters dating back to “Creep,” and the character in this song is one seriously confused individual. Among his many ramblings is the claim that he suffers from myxomatosis, a disease that only affects rabbits. The claim is fanciful and while he may indeed believe that it’s true, the rabbit metaphor effectively describes his mental state:

I don’t know why I feel so tongue-tied
Don’t know why I feel so skinned alive

As to how he arrived at such a state, he seems to have engaged in some grandstanding designed to garner fame and fortune—an effort that failed miserably:

I sat in the cupboard
And wrote it down in neat
They were cheering and waving
Cheering and waving
Twitching and salivating like with myxomatosis
But it got edited, fucked up
Strangled, beaten up
Used as a photo in Time magazine
Buried in a burning black hole in Devon

He admits in the first line of the last verse that “My thoughts are misguided and a little naïve” (no shit), but goes on to confirm his unsuccessful attempt to make a name for himself:

Yeah no one likes a smart ass but we all like stars
That wasn’t my intention, I did it for a reason
It must have got mixed up
Strangled beaten up

Although there isn’t enough information to make a definitive interpretation, I read “Myxomatosis” as a powerful exposé of the modern obsession with gaining Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame. Consider the idiots who voluntarily humiliate themselves publicly on Jerry Springer’s show or various “reality shows” where the narrative is twisted by selective camera work to induce the maximum amount of embarrassment. This guy is such a loser he couldn’t even make Jerry Springer! That is a L-O-S-E-R par excellence!

The quirky story seeks extremely well with the fuzz bass-dominated arrangement, and Thom Yorke’s vocal is picture-perfect, especially in the stop-time segments where he goes monosyllabic. I may not know exactly what “Myxomatosis” is all about, but I love the feel of the song and the strange quirkiness of the incompetent hero.

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Hail to the Thief should have ended with “Scatterbrain (As Dead as Leaves),” a perfectly lovely melody that describes the scattered state of nearly everyone living in the world today as we struggle to find ourselves amidst an information deluge coming at us at hyper speed. Unfortunately, the album ends with the odd waltz, “Wolf at the Door (It Girl. Rag Doll.),” which fits the album’s main themes from a lyrical standpoint, but feels musically disconnected from the rest of the album. Perhaps it’s the waltz tempo combined with rap, or the feeling that the more melodic chorus is incompatible with the monologue, or the violent scenes described in the lyrics. There’s also something about this song that makes me suspect that it belongs in a musical—and I hate fucking musicals.

Hail to the Thief may not be perfect, but I still think it’s a pretty damned good album, and even more relevant today than it was at the time of its release in 2003. If Thom Yorke thought the Bush-Cheney tag team was a WHAT THE FUCK moment to end all WHAT THE FUCK moments, I can’t imagine what he’s thinking now after another stolen election gave the American presidency to a perfectly horrid little man with one-twentieth the intelligence of GW.

But please, spare me the follow-up album. When Trump goes down, I never want to hear, read or watch anything having to do with that sad excuse for a human being.

Hey! Maybe he’s got myxomatosis! That would explain a lot!

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Independent music reviewer appearing on altrockchick.com and 50thirdand3rd.com. Originally from San Francisco, I am now a French/EU citizen living in Nice. And I look great in leather.

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