Less than 8 months into the project, and today marks the final appearance of a Radiohead album, though it’s the first since April.
Fitting, then, that the last of their full-length releases is my favorite (this side of OK Computer, that is – hail to the king, baby). It’s also the band’s most oddball release: a return to their early Brit rock sound, but this time with a heavy electronic influence that dominated their previous two releases.
Released in 2003, Hail to the Thief is an indirect response to the rise of the “war on terror” and early 2000s politics dominated by conservative forces. Though, in the album’s defense, it does stop short of being a protest record. Regardless, it’s the band’s most abrasive and polarizing release, if only for the liberal-leaning stance that it takes. It’s a rare, out-of-character moment for a writer like Thom Yorke to step outside of his usual vagueries and speak to a specific world event; in this case, the early stages of Dubya’s 8 year reign of terror.
The album was recorded in Hollywood, California, one track a day. The band likened the experience to summer camp. The irony that I first listened to Hail to the Thief at a summer camp before my junior year of high school is not lost on me.
As a kid, I was never sent to summer camp, so attending my first camp at the age of 15 was strange and, at times, demoralizing. I had secured a full-ride scholarship for the Summer Journalism Institute at the University of Florida – yes, a journalism camp, where I’d be writing and learning about the state of the craft over the course of 7 days. A decade later, what I learned that year has literally nothing of value today. I take that back – write well, live an interesting life, and write about interesting people/places/things, and people will pay attention. That’s about it.
I had never been away from home for more than a few days, so it was both freeing and terrifying; having to be at a certain place at a certain time, but no strict agenda. Cool side story: it was at SJI that I met Gaby Dunn, curator for the 100 Interviews project, former writer for my guilty pleasure Thought Catalog, and current writer for The Daily Dot http://www.dailydot.com. I’m pleased to see that someone actually managed to come out of that week still wanting to be a traditional journalist all these years later, but
I spent the entire week listening to Hail to the Thief. It’s an engrossing and surprising record, especially because it follows Amnesiac from 2001, the album that I prefer over its more successful predecessor Kid A, no matter what any Radiohead purist says.
HTTF is an important and unique point in the band’s discography because in the last 10 years, the group hasn’t even attempted to write anything like it since. In Rainbows was desolate electronic soundscape, and King of Limbs was a few steps into some uncharted “inorganic art” realm of music.
It’s a record in some sort of no man’s land. HTTF was released two years after the most-maligned album of their entire catalogue (though I love it to pieces, Amnesiac was criticized as being an album of “leftover songs”), and a full four years before In Rainbows. It will exist permanently as some kind of aural island, a record that stands in stark contrast, sandwiched on both sides by two of the most important and memorable albums of each half-decade.
Maybe the decision to combine both of their previous predominant styles was one the band just wanted to try again and then let it rest. If this is the case, they managed to produce 14 of the most misunderstood songs of their discography. I’d venture to say that Hail to the Thief is their most easily “forgotten about” record, due in large part to the success of the rest of their groundbreaking albums.
Shame, too, that it’s become so overlooked. It packs an unexpected punch, and is worthy of your attention.
From Hail to the Thief, this is “Go To Sleep” –
Standout tracks: “Sail to the Moon,” “Myxomatosis” and “A Punch Up At a Wedding”
Weakest track: “Where I End And You Begin” or “Scatterbrain”
RIYL: Radiohead will live on as one of the best of all time, and exist wholly unto themselves. There is nothing else like them out there.