Radiohead have mastered the prog-rock singer-songwriter album -- finally. Hail to the Thief, the British band's latest, is at once an intense personal statement by bandleader Thom Yorke and a celestial dose of guitar heroics, blips, echoes, rattles, moans and other distortions. But the new album also matches mood with message -- civilization is falling apart, don't trust anyone, save me!
In fact, Hail to the Thief is so tense, so filled with anger and paranoia and anxiety, it sounds as if it may disintegrate at any moment. Yorke borders lyrically on a meltdown: "You can scream and you can shout/It is too late now/Because you have not been paying attention," he wails on album opener "2+2=5." His band's minimal, itchy arrangements threaten in spots to come apart with him. "The Gloaming" builds itself on a distorted tape loop tailored to simulate a giant sucking sound, swallowing Yorke's distressed, echoing vocals and the drum machine junk around it in the process. "Myxomatosis" rubs like bone on bone, piling several layers of macabre keyboard sounds on top of one another for a grating, schizoid funk riff -- perhaps appropriate for a song named after a skin-tumoring disease found in rabbits.
Paranoia and misery, of course, aren't new thematic territory for Radiohead -- "Is someone listening in?" sang Yorke at the end of 2001's Amnesiac. Their albums, traditionally, are about as joyous as a court-mandated therapy session. The difference now, however, is in the execution. While Radiohead's past albums are exciting listens, they fall victim either to overly pretentious concept (the unexplainable alien and plane crash motifs of 1997's otherwise astonishing OK Computer) or runaway studio cleverness (the obfuscating vocal distortions and drum 'n' bass that made 2000's Kid A and 2001's Amnesiac so mystifying). With Hail to the Thief, the band leaves Yorke's deranged falsetto alone. It also ratchets down the ambition, choosing instead to build each individual song around Yorke's increasingly direct narratives ("Are you sweet? Are you fresh?" he sings on the vampires of Hollywood ballad "We Suck Young Blood").
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Consequently, the album musically is an amalgam of the band's previous four efforts. The lullaby "Sail to the Moon," rousing piano-rocker "A Punch-up at a Wedding" and the depressed "Scatterbrain" are unapologetically melodic, like the songs on 1995's The Bends, while the messy electronica of "Backdrifts" outweirds even Amnesiac. The sweep is alarming; the changes in tempo, design and sonic architecture give the album an undying urgency, similar to best efforts of the Stones and Beatles.
Like those bands generations ago, Radiohead will surely tell you they're the best band in the world, and they'll always act that way; even money says the follow-up to Hail to the Thief will mark another in a series of 180-degree turns. Now, at least, they've learned to infuse poignancy -- real poignancy -- into their experimentation. And poignancy suits them well.