The point here isn't whether this album marked Radiohead's return to reclaim their rightful throne from Coldplay's dour musical protectorate. It isn't a question of status. It isn't a question of melody versus experimentation, or guitar rock versus electro-blippery. In the end, it isn't really about the music at all.
Hail To The Thief is a warning. A stark warning about a future every bit as dystopian as those imagined by Orwell, Huxley or the Wachowski brothers. Confirming Thom Yorke in the role of a modern seer and soothsayer, it doesn't flinch from whispering uncomfortable secrets about our society's slow slide into drugged sleep. A sleep, he insists, from which we may very well never wake up. "It's the Devil's way now. There is no way out . . . it's too late now because you have not been paying attention."
The blame isn't neatly projected onto oppressive governments or power-crazed politicians. Although the album title is an ironic attack on usurper-in-chief George Dubya, Yorke's fractured lyrics pitilessly expose the cowardice which makes us close our eyes to abuse and console ourselves with lies. He turns the mirror on our own excuses and evasions, reminding us in song after song that "we don't wanna wake the monster." The disembodied voices we hear in his songs wriggle and protest, sidling away from responsibility. "Sandbag and hide . . . let me back, I promise to be good . . . I'm gonna go to sleep, let this wash all over me . . . we tried but there was nothing we could do."
But is the polemic being pushed at the expense of the music? Not a bit of it. The fact that these are some of the most heartrendingly beautiful songs they've ever recorded only adds power and pathos. Jonny Greenwood's continuing love affair with vintage electronics has resulted in some lush and lovely arrangements. Yorke's voice has never been better and the stark mechanisms of Kid A and Amnesiac have come to some kind of accommodation with melody. The results are often spectacular.
And the sense of gathering gloom isn't an unrelenting one. There's still room for hope, Yorke seems to be saying; there's still time to wake up and take charge of our lives rather than living at the disposal of dubiously motivated leaders, corporations and conglomerates. There's still time to head off Armageddon.
In the ethereal Sail To The Moon he dreams of a future where a president might "know right from wrong"; where a saviour might "build an ark and sail us to the moon." And in I Will, Everyman calmly turns the tables on those who'd deny him a future: "I won't let this happen to my children, meet the real world coming out of my shell . . . I will rise up."
Like the cursed Trojan prophetess Cassandra, Thom Yorke is probably doomed to disbelief by those who'd rather write him off as a paranoid obsessive with too much time on his hands. Cassandra warned about Greeks bearing gifts, but her advice went unheeded and the Trojan Horse duly wrought death and destruction. Yorke's writings and interviews have also spoken in the past of infiltrating "dark forces", eliciting a sharp response from British prime ministerial mouthpiece Alistair Campbell.
But if you're the type that still listens to prophecies, Hail To The Thief is a wake-up call of astonishing clarity.
This isn't an album for the faint hearted. Hell, even Kid A had more cheerful moments in my opinion, but if anything the lingering mood of Hail to the Thief is almost what makes it so good.
They returned to a guitar based sound here, possibly due to pressure from certain areas of their fanbase and the press, but also possibly to experiment further to see if they could hybrid their newly found electronica with their existing guitar prowess.
You have to be patient with Hail to the Thief, but you're rewarded if you are so with the material at hand. Stand out tracks personally would have to be 2+2=5, There There, Myxomatosis and Sit Down, Stand Up.
If you're willing to have a complete Radiohead collection, then it's worth purchasing this. It almost stands in its own corner away from the rest of the band's catalogue, which makes it unique of course.