Happy 15th Anniversary to Radiohead’s sixth studio album Hail to the Thief, originally released June 9, 2003.
A buzz of electricity opens Radiohead’s sixth studio album as guitarist Jonny Greenwood plugs in. Beneath the low hum you can hear lead singer Thom Yorke mutter “That’s a nice way to start, Jonny” as the band move from the heavily mechanized workings of their previous two outings, Kid A (2000) and Amnesiac (2001) and plug back in with a stronger sense of musicianship with instruments at hand.
Set against the political gloom of the early 2000s, and with a title that references the controversial 2000 re-election of George W. Bush, Hail to the Thief is Radiohead not necessarily turning off their computers but rather facing away from their iridescent glow. Whereas the double punch of Kid A/Amnesiac leant heavily on computer manipulation and studio trickery, this outing sees the band freeing them from the machine and creating a rawer, more spontaneous album in the process. Rather than relying on machines, this album has the band merging with them. The glitching blips and blops are still present, but feel more human.
Tracks like album opener “2+2=5” are charged with angst, paranoia, and amps dialed all the way up. With callouts to 1984 Doublethink, Dante’s Inferno and even Chicken Little, “2+2=5” is a rollicking post-election diatribe on the way that the world is spinning off kilter. As Yorke warns, “You have not been paying attention” in the chorus, the song acts as a rebellious wake up call to a sleeping populace. It’s all steam ahead as the band blast their way through the short 3-minute runtime, packing the song with energy and bluster.
The album is a fever dream that shape shifts with each passing bar. Songs like “Sit Down. Stand Up” and “The Gloaming” are haunting and dark, whilst songs like “Sail to the Moon,” “I Will,” “Scatterbrain” and “A Punchup at a Wedding” offer softer moments and allow a little bit of light in.
The album’s most exciting moments are when the band is at its most experimental. Tracks like “Myxomatosis” with its shuffling off-beat groove, the merging of man and machine on “Backdrifts,” and the two minds of “Where I End And You Begin” all demonstrate why Radiohead are vital listening to anyone interested in the deconstruction of songwriting.
That’s not to say that the album is without its moments of sublime songcraft. Standouts like “There There” and “Go To Sleep” exemplify the band’s ability to write blissful musical journeys.
Perhaps overly long, the album does occasionally suffer from too many ideas squeezed into its fourteen tracks and misses the mark from time to time. In fact, after its release, Thom Yorke famously posted his preferred sequencing of the album cutting it down to a solid 10-track outing. It might be a hard road to tread, and it can feel at times like it's a little unfocused, but 15 years on, Hail to the Thief remains a journey worth taking.