Radiohead, “Hail to the Thief” (Capitol)

By Mark Guarino

Starting in 2000, Radiohead pulled a serious fast one on their fans. With the twin albums “Kid A” and “Amnesiac,” long-time admirers of the British art rockers were forced to choose between following them on their journey of laptop electronica or staying at home to hold their older, more accessible, albums close to their chest, refusing to let anyone pry them away.   

To hear both sides speak — band in interviews, fans on the internet — it was a soap opera between how a band chooses to grow and what fans are willing to endure. In their mission to deconstruct rock expectations, Radiohead proved that in concert, their new ambient songs actually developed a spine of steel. In their touring life around both albums — including a magnificent show in downtown Chicago in 2001 — Radiohead shred its reputation for making music only for the intelligentsia, and instead proved that a huge, mainstream rock band can both serve the nerds and rattle the classic rock herd simultaneously.   

That is further the case with “Hail to the Thief” (Capitol), the band’s sixth album, in stores today. Although Radiohead boasts three guitarists, this is not a guitar rock album and even though they again utilize digitized beats, this is not the work of robots either. Instead, the band melds both worlds into 14 songs that are indeed impressionistic and take time to soak in, but are also warm and human enhanced.   

It’s also the first time you’ll hear a Radiohead song start and immediately think Steely Dan. That’s how “A Punchup at a Wedding” begins, a warm bluesy interplay between piano, bass and guitar. A majority of these songs present a unified band front. Frontman Thom Yorke’s crooning vocals sail over a bed of creamy guitars on “Sail to the Moon,” while more straightforward rockers range from acoustic interplay (“Go To Sleep”) to punk thrash (“2+2=5”). They also are adept in twisting the conventional into new sounds — a fuzzed-out guitar riff becomes like a choir of tubas (“Myxomatosis”) and weary handclaps on the fourth beat (“We Suck Young Blood”) turns the song into a chain gang spiritual.   

Still, Yorke’s lonely voice duets best with the pyramid of digitized blips and bleeps that enter and exit these songs. The sonic mystery Radiohead has lately mastered never has sounded both so tribal (check out the frenzied rhythms of “Sit Down. Stand Up.”) and so affirming. These songs aren’t brandishing obvious hooks, their appeal is in their urgency which never subsides.   

The album title may hint at the disputed election of George W. Bush, but the real viciousness of these songs (and no punches are pulled) is directed at us. On the opening song, Yorke rails, “it is too late now because you have not been paying attention,” and from there, the band’s doomsday report is unrelenting — in the fractured landscapes of these songs, we deserve what we get because we forgot “right from wrong.” These are unsettling messages inside passionately wrought music. For a band that has traditionally refused passivity on both ends of the stage, Radiohead’s subversion is no longer how the music is made, but what it’s saying.

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