By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
There are two camps, roughly, astride the Radiohead divide. One says that the band peaked with the moody rock glories of OK Computer, and that Kid A and Amnesiac, Radiohead’s subsequent deeper dives down the rabbit hole (indeed right up the rabbit’s psychic sonic bum), indicate that they’re on the wrong track, spinning ever further away from the only context in which they could have rightly been termed great achievers: as a rock band. Camp 2, meanwhile, feels that Radiohead are among the handful of rockers in history who’ve demonstrably improved with each new album, and, more importantly, have shown a commitment to evolution/ rock deconstruction — i.e., they’ve understood that the world does not in fact need more great rock bands.
In the wake of Kid A and Amnesiac, both of which struck a horrifically delicate balance to keep the “rock” tethered enough to allow for singer Thom Yorke to feel his way through an increasingly obfuscated field of dreams, mournings and peeves, one can imagine that some of that rock-more/rock-less stuff seeped into the band’s creative consciousness. Especially in this climate of back-to-rock basics, which has as much as stated that to not rock is simply passé (and the band has expressed its admiration for the spate of primitive-glam rock & roll revivalists such as the Strokes, the Vines, the Hives, etc.), you might think Radiohead felt the fear of alienating their fans. Could be — but perhaps not.
The brand-new Hail to the Thief was recorded in part in Los Angeles, far from the misty mental moors Radiohead have trudged through for the last few years. The assumption was that our sunshine, beaches and tanned people walking around naked would’ve put Radiohead in a lighter, less complicated frame of mind while cutting their tracks here, and while these new songs give the impression that they’ve loosened up slightly (which all rock bands who’ve been heaped with critical praise seem compelled to do: beat themselves at their own game), Hail to the Thief still only touches on rock as mere rock & roll; whether you’re sick of it or not, Thom Yorke’s not finished his musing. He’s still knocking about in one of his melancholy miasmas, and if you require a 100-percent rocking band, this Radiohead ain’t for you.
His troubled talking-in-his-sleep persona notwithstanding, it has been rumored lately that Thom Yorke’s recent political-minded rants have rather turned off the other members of the band, who, given their druthers, just might prefer to knock out a buncha choons to drink and dance to. Yet Yorke’s kept his topicalities strictly off the new record; he does have something to say, and he’s saying it, or sensing it. And you, listener, will find the meaning between the words, between Yorke’s very syllables.
There is possibly no singer on the planet who comes off more like a musician than a spokesman for, say, our disgruntled youth. Thom Yorke’s voice (two camps there, too, voters — great singing or grating whining?) insinutates supremely well as an instrument amid the group’s astutely conceived instrumental settings. That his limited-in-range vocals can convey so much (while obscuring their intent) owes as much to the songs themselves, which largely and blessedly cast their lot away from overtly American influences and toward what I swear must be English plainsong. From the first cut’s (“2 + 2 = 5”) minor modes and moods, you hear paradoxically very modern songwriting; extraordinary (to blues-clogged ears) chord progressions, cunning shifts to mutated-medieval guitars and clustered voices, as if the Plague has come. Sadly, you think, all that’s just an intro to build into the Sex Pistols/ Magazine punky thrash chorus, but that chorus grows ever spunkier, swivels and screeches and Blam! End of tune.
Chimes, piano ostinatos and electronic-percussion shimmies tart up “Sit Down. Stand Up” as Yorke urges us to “Walk into the jaws of hell . . . anytime, anytime.” I suppose like every Radiohead song this one could be a metaphor for Thom Yorke himself — his body, his quietness, his isolations, mostly the fire down below. His voice is telling stories, he isn’t, and they’re usually stories about the tone of his own voice. When the band kicks in with such a cinematic urgency, another digital-editing trick jolts it all into even higher gear, like a chase scene, except, with typical Radiohead vibration, Yorke’s referring lyrically to “the raindrops” as synth squalls skitter and squawl.
Juxtaposing like this is a game Radiohead will employ repeatedly on the album, as if it’s the divide itself that intrigues them most, and always, this state of betweenness is where their greatest power lies. On “Sail to the Moon” (“This afternoon I spoke too soon”), the medieval mold unfolds on an acoustic piano, and electric guitars filigree simply alongside; Yorke’s singing about something, yes, but more significantly the palette swings narrow to very wiiiide, like seeing Snowdonia for the first time, and something gets illustrated between icy clouds of guitar, broad chordings and stately, reflective drumkit. It’s so gorgeous, makes you feel all feely inside, but not soft, exactly, more like you want to dive off a cliff — not to die, but because you want to fly. The seductive lure of death is built into all Radiohead songs, and on this one, as the drums recede and Yorke’s voice ascends into whirling electronic clouds, it’s as if to say, “If you come in, you’ll never return.” Wicked, actually.