The monumental sense of expectation which hangs over any new Radiohead album must be as daunting for the band as it is for fans and critics. As the world’s most creatively ambitious mainstream rock stars, they have set their standards so high that some kind of mythic fall seems inevitable. By aligning themselves defiantly against the anti-intellectual parochialism of Britpop and retro-garage rock, the Oxford quintet have risked alienating friends and foes alike. Perversity, virtuosity and emotional clout have carried them through two desiccated post-rock albums, but the critical consensus seems to be one of patient expectation for a return to the left-field guitar heroics of 1997’s OK Computer.
Deep, broad and sprawling, Hail To The Thief is not that album. But for all its muddied textures and sideways lurches, it is a magnificently engaging and expansive work. Neither a classic-rock climbdown nor a completion of the experimental cycle which began with Kid A but an entirely logical and mostly successful fusion of both styles, throwing out some new hybrids in the process. Such as the weary, washed-out plod of “We Suck Young Blood”, which sounds like some bombed-out gospel choir with history’s worst hangover. Or “Myxomatosis”, which vaults into the space-jazz stratosphere on a spiralling cyclotron of treated speedfuzz guitar. Or the electro-whirr of “The Gloaming”, a hissing sci-fi slither fissured with snaps, crackles and pops.
There is no immediately obvious emotional or lyrical focus to Hail To The Thief. Besides that Bush-bashing title, even the opaquely political lyrics of recent albums have been replaced by bilious inner monologues?a cop-out, perhaps, but Thom Yorke is no Noam Chomsky, and his anti-capitalist musings have mostly existed outside music. Emerging from years of processed vocal abstraction and fragmentary slogans, Yorke’s personal demons loom very large here in a symphony of psychic disgust and parental anxiety, nocturnal gloom and claws-out nature imagery. Couched in a ripe vocabulary of slavering wolves and child-eating vampires, Hail To The Thief feels like some grandly gothic horror film set to music. With his operatic range and fathomless reserves of self-pity, Yorke’s raging persecution mania has finally found its perfect vehicle. Here be monsters.
Any initial disappointment in Hail To The Thief soon fades. Like all great albums, it sounds daunting at first but repays multiple hearings. And for all its baroque sonic trickery, it also contains simply sublime piano-guitar lullabies, from the spectral blue-note sobs of “Sail To The Moon”to the soul-soothing Smithsian folk-pop surges of “Scatterbrain”. There are also enough anthems to appease Radiohead’s more conservative fans. Indeed, the clanging guitars and piercing falsetto sighs of lead-off single “There There” evoke primetime Neil Young, while the honky-tonk piano clonk of “Drunken Punch-Up At A Wedding”is the great vengeful tirade that Supertramp should have written.
Heroically adrift from the zeitgeist, Hail To The Thief raises a gigantic finger to the low ambitions and cramped emotions of the fashion-victim pop minnows all around. The good ship Radiohead sails on into the night with its strange, sad, psychically damaged cargo intact.