It can take a few years to properly appraise an album by a band as great as Radiohead. It is important to shake off the initial impressions – distorted as they are by the weight of expectation – and allow the album time to grow on you. A band that has so consistently produced the best music of our generation deserves that. Radiohead are many different things for many different people – some fans will contest my choice of Kid A as the band’s finest hour. But for me, ‘Hail to the Thief’ just doesn’t hold together as well as that record. While the album includes some of their best songs yet (for me, ‘Where I End and You Begin’, ‘A Wolf at the Door’), some of electronic experimentation is less successfully integrated into the songwriting as on ‘Kid A’. While the album incapsulates all of their sonic concerns, the mood is jarringly uneven, and I never listen to it as a whole. Whereas there are also weak moments on ‘Amnesiac’, somehow the overall atmosphere of the record holds the songs together. That said, Radiohead reach the sublime on numerous occasions here, remaining one of the best bands around.
’2 + 2 = 5′ breaks out of its ominous, ‘Amnesiac’-esque opening into something as raw and passionate as their Bends-era material. A revitalising shock to the system, it sets a volatile tone for the rest of the album and provides a counterweight to some of the more dirge-like and ponderous tracks. ‘Sit Down. Stand Up’ just doesn’t work for me, an arsenal of electronic effects deployed to no great consequence, over a non-song. For me, the subtlety of the sonic embellishment of Kid A is missing here: just special effects for their own sake. ‘Sail to the Moon’, in significant contrast, is a sublime, image-rich ballad in the mold of ‘How to Diappear Completely’ and ‘Pyramid Song’.
The minimal electro of ‘Backdrifts’ has an echo of ‘Idiotech’ and ‘Like Spinning Plates’ but is less malevolent than the former and more melodic than the latter, successfully combining the machine-made with a pop sensibility. ‘Go to Sleep’ recalls some of the looser, guitar based tracks from Amnesiac, but is less oppressive than, say, Knives Out, revolving around an unusually groovy sequence of guitar notes in an odd time-signature. ‘Where I End and You Begin’, for me the album highlight, was gob-smackingly dismissed by Pitchfork as ‘a U2 song’. Whereas the fast-paced rythmn and scratchy guitars bear a passing resemblance to ‘Sundy Bloody Sunday’, this is where the similarity ends. An apocalyptic epic, eerie keyboard drones compete with backwards guitar licks before building to a jaw-dropping climax, with Thom Yorke intoning “I will eat you alive” in a distinctly un-Bono-like manner.
After this peak it is easy to lose patience with the impossibly dreary ‘We Suck Young Blood’, a veritable funeral march. This in turn makes a poor match with the glitchy subsequent track, The Gloaming, which comes across as an unfinished idea. ‘There There’, apparently their most successful single since ‘Karma Police’, builds from a sweetly sung beginning into a deafening finale. A much-liked track, and more conventionally guitar-orientated than much of their recent material, it doesn’t do much for me. ‘I will’ is a sweet, sad snippet of a ballad, that might have been fleshed out into something great, while ‘A Punch-up at a Wedding’ is almost unrecognisable for Radiohead in its rythmn and lyrical concerns, despite Thom’s vocals. The monstrous rave synths of ‘Myxamatosis’ leave me a bit cold, while ‘Scatterbrain’ recalls songs as bittersweet as ‘Fake Plastic Trees’. However, the final track ‘A Wolf at the Door’, is something else entirely, tapping into Yorke’s anxiety at being a father, about having the strength to protect his children. It is entirely tangible and honest, and sung in a totally different range to his normal vocals, giving respite to some of his more fey moments. Varying the style of vocals in the future could produce similarly unexpected and brilliant results. It’s not their finest album then, but can only be criticised in comparison to their own very high standards. Still leagues ahead of the rest.