Radiohead are such a powerful and insanely creative force that in 18 years of recording, they have not and probably can not repeat themselves from album to album even if they tried.
Even if much hailed early 2000s works Kid A (2000) and Amnesiac (2001) shared a common theme of experimentalism, almost every song was a new revelation. The same was true for the recently reissued follow-up to Amnesiac, 2003’s Hail To The Thief, now complete with a second bonus disc of live tracks, remixes and demos.
When you read critics or fans say – as they have – that Hail was, among other things a slight return to the more guitar-heavy sound of Radiohead’s 1990s output, this should not be taken to mean it sounds like old material, though there are a couple of hints of older songs to be found. The “slight return” really means that pure, delicate acoustics, clean and distorted electric guitars, and actual solos via Jonny Greenwood are present here more than on the band’s previous two albums.
In fact, guitar-centered tracks are a significant minority – six by my count – on Hail but are nowhere near as numerous as they are on the band’s first three records, Pablo Honey, The Bends, OK Computer.
At nearly an hour in length and 14 tracks long (plus 14 more on a bonus disc), Hail To The Thief is at its core a healthy, complex mix of forward-looking experimental beats, electronics and other synth/keyboard-heavy technology and more conventional instruments like guitar, bass, drums, and Thom Yorke’s methodical piano work. In political terms, it has bipartisan appeal, with just enough guitar work to satisfy old fans and a lot of creative, adventurous sounds for the more versatile music fan.
Looking back, this is a stronger and more consistent album than I originally thought it was, with guitar-central tracks “There, There,” “Go To Sleep,” “2+2=5,” and “A Wolf At The Door” not only being the album’s highlights but among true Radiohead classics. The latter track ("Wolf"), with Yorke's rambling and frantic lyrical verses that give way to the band's swirly melodies in the refrains, along with Yorke's gorgeous falsetto at song's end all combine for a soothing and well selected way to close out the album.
As impressive as it is, Hail has just a few clunkers that prevent the album from being one of Radiohead's best. The deep bass booming and tape loop-dominated “The Gloaming,” is a noble experiment but in the end an uneventful track. The funeral music/vocals of “I Will,” and the slow and sour piano-based “We Suck Young Blood” aren't bad songs, but the latter two tracks may suck the life out of any room they're played in and would’ve been better off as B-sides.
On the newly included bonus disc, highlights include the lovely, folky acoustic "Go To Sleep” b-side “Gagging Order,” a live acoustic rendition of its A-side, the Four Tet remix of “Scatterbrain” and an exciting live 2003 performance of “2+2=5.” Other tracks are fairly intriguing at first but lose their cool upon repetitiveness or lack of substantive content, like the strange strings and funky bass of “Paperbag Writer” and the quasi-industrial experiment “I Am Citizen Insane.”
This 14-track bonus disc complements HTTT pretty well as a total package but isn't quite as essential as it would be if it contained a full show or comprehensive disc of demos and B-sides from the era.
HTTT was the last proper album Radiohead recorded specifically for a record label (EMI). And though it may not be the band's very best CD, its inventiveness and songwriting depth was truly remarkable for a sixth album and should not be under-appreciated. In that respect, it’s at least better than debut Pablo Honey, which itself is an underrated album (Radiohead, you see, doesn't make bad records).
In sum, if you’re a Radiohead or alt-rock fan who missed HTTT the first time around, it would be an unwise move to miss out again on an album with as much rich music as this one has.