Hail to the (Online) Thief
A Sneak Peek at Radiohead's New Disc

Funny album title news first. You probably remember that Axl Rose has been promising a new Guns N’ Roses album for about eight years now. Called Chinese Democracy, the album is reportedly still being “refined,” while Axl and his new crew work vigorously at not playing their scheduled concerts. Well, enter the Offspring, who have decided to title their new album… Chinese Democracy. Subtitled You Snooze, You Lose, the album’s title is apparently a slap at Axl from Offspring singer Dexter Holland for stealing his hairstyle. The Offspring album is scheduled to come out next month. Axl’s album will be released someday, we think.

Just as an aside, does anyone else have trouble telling that Dexter guy’s voice apart from “Weird Al” Yankovic’s? Strange…

Anyway, on to the other recent announcement that made me laugh out loud. The guys in Radiohead have chosen Hail to the Thief as the title of their sixth album, a direct smack at George W. Bush. Band members have been playing down the political subtext of the title since revealing it, saying it’s really just a quote from the first song, “2+2=5,” but come on. Of course it’s a dig at Bush. At any rate, that album is scheduled for release on June 10.

And speaking of theft, how’s this: I’ve been listening to the album for two days.

In keeping with tradition, all 14 tracks of Hail to the Thief ended up on the internet this weekend, two full months before the record’s release. The band has greeted this news with a shrug, adding credence to the theory that they themselves leaked the tracks. They’ve also been quick to point out, as they did with both Kid A and Amnesiac when they were leaked, that the tracks are not mastered, meaning additional sounds and segues will likely be added when the final version is completed. Still, the basic shape and form of the album is there for the listening.

Oh, and Hail to the Thief does bear one very important difference from its two predecessors: this one doesn’t suck.

In fact, it’s pretty damn terrific.

I’m still sorting through my impressions, but I have no compunctions about calling Hail to the Thief the third-best Radiohead album, right behind OK Computer and The Bends. It’s got all the sonic atmosphere of Kid A, but they remembered to write songs this time, and impressive ones at that. Additionally, the first thing you’ll notice about Thief is that the guitars are back, and for most of the record, Radiohead finally sounds like a band again. It’s a welcome relief from the tuneless clangs and clatters of the last two discs.

I’m going to praise this record quite a bit in the coming paragraphs, so I want to make sure I get the scale straightened out here and now. Hail to the Thief, swell as it is, is absolutely nowhere near the luminous genius of OK Computer. In fact, I’m coming to think of that album as a miraculous fluke, a perfect divine accident that they will never repeat, or even approximate, again. Just so we’re clear on this: OK Computer is one of the best albums ever made. Hail to the Thief is merely very, very good, and if you pick it up expecting a glorious return to form, you’re going to be somewhat disappointed.

Okay, here we go. Album six. Hail to the Thief.

It opens with a series of dissonant feedback bursts, edited to sound like your CD is skipping, and when the familiar pitter-patter of those Kid A drum machines softly wafts in, you might be tempted to give up hope. But then Thom Yorke, harmonizing with himself, lays down a lovely vocal melody, which spins and turns over a vortex of whirling yet subtle guitar. The drums kick in, and we’re off. “2+2=5” is a powerhouse, plainly stating the quintet’s intent to get back to the business of being a real, honest-to-God band. It dives through a couple of Sonic Youth-esque breakdowns, and then crashes to a halt abruptly. It’s a superb opener.

“Sit Down Stand Up” begins with an eerie, beautiful piano and xylophone melody, which slowly builds in intensity until it explodes in a flurry of electronic percussion. It’s everything the Kid A material tried and failed to be – simultaneously grounded and weightless. This is perhaps the closest this album gets to approaching the mesmerizing effect of “Let Down” – Yorke’s repeated refrain of “raindrops” (I think) over the furious outro will stay with you for hours, and drummer Phil Selway seems to delight in dueling the drum machine. This is a winner.

Ditto for “Sail to the Moon,” for different reasons. This number is a soaring, piano-based ballad reminiscent of Zeppelin’s “The Rain Song,” or Radiohead’s own “Pyramid Song,” but better. What elevates it is the melody. Yorke is one of the world’s best singers if he’s given a melody to wrap his aching voice around, and this song makes the best use of his pipes since “Exit Music.” (Conversely, without a strong melody to sing, Yorke often comes off as whiny, over-caffeinated and irritating – see “Idioteque” as Exhibit A.) Everything you think a Radiohead song called “Sail to the Moon” should be, this one is.

The electronics come crashing back for “Backdrifts,” but instead of carrying the song, they merely create an idiosyncratic bed for Yorke’s vocal melody. You could easily imagine this song arranged for guitars, bass and drums, but even so, I think I’d like it this way better. This is the next logical step up from the more electronically-based tracks on Amnesiac, but it’s driven by the song, not the sounds. Imagine U2’s “Miami,” but much better. Near the end, an acoustic piano is played over the pulsing electronics – mixing the organic and the electronic is a recurring theme on this album, one which works to great effect here.

After the thump and shimmy of “Backdrifts,” the acoustic guitar opening of “Go to Sleep” is a surprise. What’s even more surprising is the places the band then takes the song, from a verse melody in 10/8 to a soaring chorus to a chunky electric midsection. This is one of the album’s highlights, and not the least of the reasons why is its full organic band sound. If you liked “Knives Out” on Amnesiac, this is that times 40. It even has a couple of guitar solos. Imagine that.

Similarly, if you liked the insistent throb of Kid A‘s “The National Anthem,” then “Where I End and You Begin” is a fantastic one-up. It’s based on a surging bassline that never quits, and Yorke’s gorgeous vocals are accented nicely by twin guitar atmospherics a la old U2. (Plus, no atonal horn section, so yay.) This is one of the few songs on Thief that picks you up and carries you along for its entire running time, and even though they don’t expand on the original motif much, it’s propulsive enough that it works beautifully. It concludes with all the instruments crashing to a halt and Yorke creepily repeating “I will eat you alive.”

That theme continues on the bizarre “We Suck Young Blood,” which begins with piano, brushed cymbals, handclaps and slide bass loping along in a sad, pseudo-jazz lament. It continues in this vein, no pun intended, with lovely Yorke-on-Yorke harmony and a nice guitar melody, until everything explodes and then disintegrates. This one defies easy description. Imagine if Queen did an awful lot of downers. Sort of.

“The Gloaming” most closely resembles “Backdrifts,” as it sets Yorke’s melody over a twittering bed of noisy electronics. In this case it’s more of a percussion sculpture that supports his heavily reverbed voice. This one is particularly haunting, in a way that similar tracks on Kid A and Amnesiac just weren’t. This track also emphasizes how effective Yorke’s voice is when he’s harmonizing with himself.

Once again the band follows up an electronic sound collage with a straight-up pop song – the single, “There There.” The opening guitar figure left a smile on my face a mile wide, and the song builds steadily from there, adding vocal harmonies and more insistent percussion as it goes along. It’s a simple ditty, based around the phrase “just because you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there,” but by the time it’s done, you realize that the song has effectively crescendoed for five full minutes, culminating in a crashing full band finale.

“I Will” is kind of a breather – strummed electric guitar and Yorke’s plaintive voice, multi-tracked to great effect. It’s reminiscent of “Exit Music,” yet not as venomous or insistent. The concluding refrain of “in our baby’s eyes” is perhaps the album’s most beautiful moment.

Believe it or not, these five white guys from Britain actually lay down a decent psuedo-funk groove on “A Punch-Up at a Wedding,” even if Yorke’s harmonized moaning at the start threatens to derail it. This is the album’s simplest song, sounding something like recent Peter Gabriel, but the amiable laziness of the groove carries it. It almost, but not quite, overstays its welcome.

The transition from the loose funk of “Wedding” into the dirty, blistering guitar of “Myxamatosis” is breathtaking, and even more impressive is that the syncopated progressive rhythm of the song is actually in straight four time. Yorke keeps to a lower register here, intoning the chorus: “I don’t know why I feel so tongue tied.” It’s an interesting contrast with the howling backdrop. If Devin Townsend hadn’t invented ambient metal already, this might be the prototype.

“Scatterbrain” slows things down with a sweet guitar and vocal melody that goes some surprising places. On first listen, it sounds like a pretty meander, but subsequent trips through it will reveal perhaps this album’s finest melody, one which only a singer of Yorke’s quality could pull off. The twin guitars of Ed O’Brien and Jonny Greenwood are magical here as well, chiming and ringing celestially.

After “Scatterbrain,” “A Wolf at the Door” sounds kind of like a bonus track. It’s a 6/8 shuffle delivered Elvis Costello style, with a hint of Bob Dylan’s phrasing. It grows before your ears into a towering, bitter-sounding rant, but it’s still something of an awkward conclusion. Plus, it’s over before you know it, a malady which plagued both Kid A‘s and Amnesiac‘s concluding tracks as well. It serves as closing credits music, if nothing else – disconnected from much of the album that came before it, yet nice in its own right.

So, do I recommend you go online and download Hail to the Thief? That’s entirely up to you, but I will say that the band doesn’t seem to mind that the album’s out there. Plus, this will be worth buying in June anyway, just to see how they string such a diverse collection together. Either way, you’re in for a treat, since this album is one fine piece of work. It’s single-handedly restored my faith in a band I’d just about written off, and it plays like the true follow-up to OK Computer. They’ve still got a long way to go before they reach those heights again, but Hail to the Thief shows that they haven’t lost sight of the path. In short, it’s simply wonderful.

Next week, more space-rock with Ester Drang.

See you in line Tuesday morning.