Step right up ladies and gentlemen! Witness the amazing sight that is Radiohead! The band that is signed to a major label, but still has indie cred! The band that not only sells huge loads of albums and fills stadiums, but also gets a huge amount of critical praise! They're an anomaly! A freakshow amongst cookie-cutter mooks!
Seriously speaking, Radiohead is quite a curiosity in the day and age of artists pooping out the same album after album. This is a band that started out on a rather auspicious note, putting out somewhat of a stinker of an album which also contained one massive radio hit that everyone seems to still know all the words to (Pablo Honey and "Creep" respectively). From that point on, they put out a damn good album (The Bends), a downright classic album, and one that falls into my personal top 5 (OK Computer), an even more adventurous album that was again quite amazing (Kid A), and an album of B-sides from that same release that were somewhat uneven but still destroyed the work of pretty much everyone else on a big label (Amnesiac).
Now that we're up to speed (minus their live album, which was unfortunate in several ways), the group has arrived at their 6th full-length studio album. The tables had been set months in advance, as early mixes of the entire release found their way onto the internet. There was ripe speculation that the group had returned more to their guitar-based roots, but that was mostly swept out the door upon release. In fact, Hail To The Thief is a continuation down the road of experimentation that the group has been following for the past 5 releases, and despite some seriously ambitious efforts, I'm disappointed in it. After spending weeks with the release, I'd even go so far as to say that it's my 5th favorite release by them (arriving above Pablo Honey, but below everything else mentioned above.
From the above, you may gather that I don't like anything on the release, but that's far from the truth. In fact, Hail To The Thief contains some of the best tracks that the group has ever done. The one-two opening of "2+2=5" and "Sit Down. Stand Up." is one of the best opening punches that the group has done to date. The former track begins with some contact mic static before slowly building into quite a rocker (that does indeed sound like something that could be a sequel to a track from OK Computer), while the latter slowly adds to quiet chimes and programmed beats before the whole thing explodes in a flurry of electronic sprays, a thick piano riff, and barreling percussion. Elsewhere, "Where I End And You Begin" slides forward with eerie pitch-bent keyboards and a slippery rhythm section while "There There" is a glorious track that strips things down to a repetitive riff over the course of the rising crescendo of a track.
Many tracks feel like the group just spinning their wheels, though. "Backdrifts" mixes some fluttering electronics and programmed beats, but simply fails to really go anywhere over the course of five and a half minutes while "We Suck Young Blood" finds the group back in saloon-style swamp blues land, but the results are sleep-inducing (and not in a good way). Likewise, "A Punchup At A Wedding" swaggers and stumbles along without any real direction or goal, constantly prompting me to skip forward to "Myxomatosis," another standout track on the disc. Easily the most aggressive song on the entire album, it mixes super skronky keyboards and layers of synths and an odd rhythmic signature into something paranoid and gripping. Fortunately, the disc closes out with the off-kilter two-step of "A Wolf At The Door," as Yorke alternately spits out vocals and croons in his trademark falsetto. Even though it's one of the more traditional songs on the disc (it actually has something resembling verses and choruses), it's a shambling rant mixed with a hopeful ray of light that shuts the door on a somewhat misfiring release.
At this point, I find it just a wee bit ironic that Thom once sang (back on The Bends), "I wish I was bulletproof." Although he may not personally be (and both his life experiences and lyrics again relay that), the music of the group has pretty much become so. They've gotten to the point that they can do anything and release anything and they'll still have a fanbase that will eat it up. That's not to say they didn't try with this release, because that would be rather presumtuous, but I do think that they're stuck in somewhat of a holding pattern in terms of which direction they want to take their sound. They're caught between statements saying this release is the follow-up to OK Computer and that they won't be recognizable in two years and Hail To The Thief, therefore is the result of that indecision. As mentioned above, I think it could have been a much stronger release had they cut a handful of tracks, but based on everything I've already read about the disc, I'm probably in the minority. It's still not a horrible release by any means, just a bit of a letdown for me.