Unite and take overRADIOHEAD **** (4/5)
Hail To The Thief (Parlophone)
Recorded in sunny LA in a fraction of the time it took to make its predecessors, Radiohead’s sixth album sees the return of what older fans might term “real instruments”. So, OK Computer Pt 2, then? Not quite. Thom’s preparing his ark for the apocalypse, glitch techno is still very much an “issue” and someone’s been listening to War Of The Worlds...
IF RADIOHEAD go in for anniversaries, they might derive some amusement from the fact that a decade ago this month, they released a single called Pop Is Dead. One day, they might get around to a hits compilation, but don’t expect it to appear on there. For one, it wasn’t a hit. More to the point, it’s really, really crap. Two minutes of impotent indie rage soundtracking a Yorkean treatise on an art form apparently resigned to its own obsolescence: “It died an ugly death by back catalogue.”
Back in the early days, Thom was a man in a peculiar quandary. A singer in a rock band who seemed convinced that rock had used up its bag of tricks. On Pablo Honey’s Anyone Can Play Guitar, he decided he could hope for nothing better than to grow his hair and “be Jim Morrison”. On The Bends – one of the first songs Radiohead wrote together – he wished “it was the ‘60s”, he wished that “something could happen”. Quite what, though, he couldn’t tell you.
Not for the first time in their collective life, Radiohead seemed paralysed by the challenge they had set themselves. To validate their existence by making rock music that sounded unlike any rock music anyone had made before. To be big and clever. In 1994, the pressure almost dissolved them during the tortuous sessions for The Bends. Only after a short tour did the band reconvene in the studio and – as ordered by John Leckie – played the bloody songs while he pressed “record”. The Bends bought them the confidence and goodwill to make OK Computer. Which, in turn, opened the door to the group’s own personal Narnia.
But the infinite possibilities afforded by experimentation brought their own troubles. Guitarist Ed O’Brien’s online diary of the making of Kid A portrayed a group buckling under the weight of their own perfectionism. Some songs took over a year to nail. Dozens were left unfinished. They were a great band and yet the desire to transcend their influences had dismantled them – Thom and Jonny Greenwood working with laptops in one room, while in the “back room” Ed, Colin and Phil wondered if they had a part to play in Radiohead’s future.
The end justified the means. If you got over the relative absence of guitars, you noticed that Kid A and Amnesiac were the answer to the questions asked by those earliest self-critiquing efforts. By tinkering with new toys, tunes like Kid A’s Idioteque and Everything In Its Right Place allowed them to rediscover the vital role that chance has to play in making music. From “What do we do?” to “What does this button do?” in eight years. And the funny thing was, the resulting noise still sounded like Radiohead.
Time then to stop worrying and let the songs take care of themselves. Radiohead are back in the same room and my God, can’t you just tell? A single foreboding guitar motif ushers in 2 + 2 = 5, played with the kind of restraint that suggests imminent release. And yet nothing quite prepares you for its War Of The Worlds-like climax - Thom dementedly barking, “Don’t question my authority or put me in the dock”, over an incoming fleet of warp-speed sound effects. When the Glastonbury searchlights sweep across Worthy Farm for that one, you really won’t want to be anywhere else.
Like all the best albums, Hail To The Thief too might find us having to reassess our preconceptions about genres we might have otherwise found hard-going. There’s a jazz-rock zip about Where I End And You Begin which offers perfect counterpoint to Yorke’s plaintive cry of “I’m up in the clouds and I can’t come down.” Fans who feel that glitch-techno has no place in Radiohead’s musical inventory may not take to The Gloaming, which suggests that Thom Yorke’s love affair with scratchy Berlin dub minimalists Pole is far from over. But it shouldn’t be forgotten that his voice has a knack of hoovering up the most dissonant sonic fragments and spitting them back out as bedtime lullabies. On Backdrifts, a foetal funk of digital pulses pushes along a weary tirade at its subject’s broken promises. The names are withheld, but then after the clumsy Blair-baiting of Amnesiac, we can probably guess who lurks in Thom’s little black book.
Thankfully, there’s little direct evidence of Yorke’s extra-curricular banner-waving here. Hail To The Thief is far too subtle for that. In terms of mood, think back to feverish somnambulant Bends-era tunes like Street Spirit (Fade Out) and Nice Dream. Like his mentor Michael Stipe, most of Yorke’s lyrics seem to be mined from the exact point when the logical mind shimmies down the drainpipe to join the circus of sleep. And it doesn’t take a genius to guess what kind of dreams Yorke has. On the gothic Weimar cabaret of We Suck Young Blood, he comes on like a vampiric David Koresh, enquiring “Are you sweet?/Are you fresh?/Are you hung up by the wrists?” over the rest of the band’s slow handclaps.
Like Koresh, Yorke’s obsession with getting the hell away before the apocalypse strikes seems to define him. Certainly, it’s been responsible for some of the group’s most beautiful music – and, sure enough, suspended at an exquisite mid-point between OK Computer’s Subterranean Homesick Alien and Amnesiac’s Pyramid Song is where you’ll find the blissful opium reverie Sail To The Moon. If you know that Yorke’s son is called Noah, it’s hard not to be moved when he sings, “In the flood you’ll build an ark/And sail us to the moon.” The same preoccupations find a more exhilarating outlet on Sit Down, Stand Up – in which pounding night scares give way to a fearsome rhythmic assault, Yorke repeatedly intoning “THE RAINDROPS.” Like the loose-limbed catharsis of Where I End And You Begin, it sounds like music designed for some deserted European motorway at 4am.
On a soundtrack tailor-made for gliding into the nocturnal abyss, two remaining songs stand out as Radiohead’s very best. Framed by languid ivory-tinkling and Yorke’s theatrical admonishments, A Punch-Up At A Wedding sees Yorke fashioning something oddly poignant from a string of closing-time clichés. “I was there/And it wasn’t like that.” Even better is the album’s punch-drunk conclusion, Wolf At The Door. Deploying a similar concept to OK Computer’s Fitter Happier – but without the digitised voice – other people’s lives flash before Yorke’s tired eyes while his colleagues play us out with all the dutiful resignation of the Titanic house bands: “Take it with the love it’s given take it with a pinch of salt take it to the taxman... Cold wives and mistresses/Cold wives and Sunday papers city boys in first class don’t know we’re born.”
Of course, all this assiduous envelope-pushing doesn’t count for nothing if all you can hear is ideas. As Blur’s latest opus occasionally revealed, it’s sometimes hard to play properly when you’re patting yourselves on the back. But, with the possible exception of Scatterbrain (unrewarding mixture of wayward crooning and open tuning), Radiohead’s sixth album coheres as well as anything else in their canon. They’ve gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid becoming their own tribute band without taking it out on us. In other words, by stealing rock away from its own past – just as they set out to do all those years ago – they give us what we didn’t realise we wanted. Hail indeed.
Peter Paphides talks to Jonny Greenwood and Colin Greenwood
Hail To The Thief sees Radiohead sounding a lot more like a band again. An apology for Kid A and Amnesiac?
JG: “Not really. I think some of our best music was done on those albums. Perhaps it was a drain on some people’s time to explore them fully.”
The album was recorded unusually quickly. What happened?
JG: “We didn’t try to write while the tapes were running. Nigel [Godrich, co-producer] summoned us out to LA, so we had three weeks in the sun.”
CG: “We just got off the road, entered the studio and recorded 80 per cent of it in two weeks. That’s never happened to us before.”
To what did you owe this sudden outbreak of enjoyment?
CG: “Hiring three boiled-sweet coloured brand new Minis and driving them around LA. That was myself, Phil [Selway] and our technician Peter. We pretended we were in The Italian Job. Ed [O’Brien] had a Volvo convertible and we all took the piss out of him for having a hairdresser’s car. Then we all got into it and realised it had the best sound system, so he drove us down Sunset Boulevard with Bob Marley booming out of the speakers.”
As musical flag-bearers for the No Logo generation, you must aware that the Radiohead brand has performed well, despite the product undergoing numerous changes.
JG: “Heh-heh! It’s a strong brand, isn’t it? It also allows us to work in relative anonymity. We do change our logo quite regularly though.”
Hail To The Thief veers dangerously close to jazz-rock at times. How do you plead?
JG: “Ignorance! Our manager keeps threatening to lend me a Weather Report album.”
On this evidence, maybe he doesn’t need to.
JG: “Maybe not! I do have a Focus album somewhere. I must dig it out and see if we sound like it.”