15 Years Ago: Radiohead Get Back to Basics on ‘Hail to the Thief’
Radiohead had spent the past half decade making industry-rattling records, so when it came time to record their sixth album in late 2002, they needed a break from being music revolutionaries.
That's not to say Hail to the Thief wasn't another exemplary work of art by the best band of its generation. It's every bit as groundbreaking and excellent as its immediate predecessors OK Computer (from 1997), Kid A (2000) and Amnesiac (2001). But this time Radiohead deliberately scaled back from the tools that led them on their golden path.
Starting with OK Computer, their third album and the one that sealed the band's legacy, they logged countless hours in the studio, overdubbing tracks over tracks, mixing, rearranging, layering and overdubbing some more. Kid A and its sequel, Amnesiac, were basically electronic albums made with few guitars or other traditional rock instruments.
Watch Radiohead's Video for 'There There'
For Hail to the Thief, the five members of Radiohead, along with longtime producer and collaborator Nigel Godrich, entered Hollywood's Ocean Way Recording studios with a plan to finish the record relatively quickly and without much fuss. Six weeks later, they emerged with an album mostly recorded live, with minimal overdubs and a return to the guitars that helped spark their second album (and first classic) in 1995, The Bends.
From the start, Radiohead said they weren't out to make a "big creative leap or statement" with Hail to the Thief. Instead, the album -- whittled down to 14 tracks by the time it was released -- was a reaction to both their previous two records, which were recorded at the same time, and the election of George W. Bush in 2000 -- specifically the War on Terror that followed his presidency.
But like OK Computer, which indirectly rather than directly fed into a fear of rapidly expanding technology, Hail to the Thief was more informed by political events going on around the globe in 2002 than specifically influenced by them. The undercurrent is there, but the surface is often just as oblique and mystifying as the lyrics Thom Yorke pieced together from random words on Kid A and Amnesiac.
Likewise, literary allusions also make their way into the songs and their titles. Each of the songs comes with a subtitle, inspired by Victorian-age music programs that would offer alternate titles to songs that housed some serious morals. So the ballad "Sail to the Moon" came with "Brush the Cobwebs Out of the Sky" and the funk-fused "A Punchup at a Wedding" featured the subtitle "No no no no no no no no."
Watch Radiohead's Video for 'Go to Sleep'
Which makes Hail to the Thief one of Radiohead's most curious albums. It doesn't set out to make a grand, creative statement, but it makes one all the same. This band just can't help it. And as their last record with EMI, it marks the end of another era. From here on out, Radiohead would call their own shots, including the headline-grabbing decision the next time around to let fans pay whatever they wanted for 2007's In Rainbows.
And Hail to the Thief sounds like a bridge between the two periods. The songs aren't as accessible as those found on the already-challenging Kid A and Amnesiac, finding a certain balance between the noises generated in the busy tracks and the spaces in between. But they're also more straightforward than the paths future records would take. It's a tricky album, with the best songs -- like opener "2 + 2 = 5," "Where I End and You Begin," lead single "There There" and closer "A Wolf at the Door" -- sounding like brand new excursions that also somehow sound cozily familiar.
Radiohead were rewarded with another Top 10 album: Hail to the Thief reached No. 3 in the U.S. (Kid A and In Rainbows both made it to the top) and No. 1 in the U.K. And if it doesn't exactly hold together as well as much of the band's previous work, the tracks themselves find a sort of independence the more album-cohesive statements of OK Computer and Kid A can't. Looking back, Radiohead made more focused records before and after Hail to the Thief (various group members have complained about the album's nearly hour length, among other things). But seen as a transitional record in the career of the new century's best band, it's a crucial step toward where they were headed.