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The new Radiohead record makes me feel old. Not old in a “Good Christ, I’ve been listening to this band for a decade” kind of way, though that’s certainly alarming enough. No, old as in “Good Christ, I remember when it was an insult to say someone sounds like Pink Floyd.” And a lot of Hail to the Thief reminds me of Pink Floydnot the hipster-friendly, somehow-credible Syd Barrett-era Floyd, mind you, but the laser-show-soundtracky, studio-tanned Dark Side of the Moon-era band that the stoner kids at my high school insisted was deep shit, man.
Partly this is because, like Floyd, Radiohead now seems more willing than ever to submit to the comforting power of a big, dumb rock groove. Or at least a lot more willing than it has been since the drum solo on “Paranoid Android,” the anthem of Information Age alienation that was the centerpiece of OK Computer. Back in 1997, that album secured Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke and his fellow Oxonians a reputation as serious artistesrather than cookie-cutter alt-rockers who had unexpectedly flashed a bit of depth on their sophomore LP, 1995’s The Bends.
Unfortunately for anyone who was deeply impressed with this feat, earning some respect caused Yorke & Co. to lose their shit completely. On the band’s two follow-ups, Kid A and Amnesiac, Radiohead shed all semblance of caring about whether its audience liked it or not. As serious-artiste statements go, the discs flirt with immortality. But not in the same way as OK Computerwhich, I’m sure we’ll all agree, takes immortality to bed and does things to it that would flabbergast Dan Savage. Still, the two “difficult” albums have aged better than it seemed they would when they came out, especially Kid A, which in 2000 felt like a pretty thin précis of the three years it supposedly took to make.
Like Tusk or In Utero, Kid A is one of those being-a-rock-star-stinks-in-ways-you-can’t-even-imagine-type albums that those of us who work like hell to pay our rent by writing about rock stars appreciate so. “Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon,” the image that Yorke employed to describe his sullen abjuration of fame on album-opener “Everything in Its Right Place,” rang somewhat less than true coming from a group that signed to a major label for its very first record and has toured assiduously ever since. But even if being rich and famous does in fact suck lemons, complaining about it is tacky, a point Nick Hornby should have made while panning Kid A in The New Yorker. (Nonetheless, he was absolutely correct in pointing out that “if you like this record, you don’t have a life”; now that I have no friends, I like it a lot).
Sorry, I was supposed to be talking about Hail to the Thief. The first thing evident about this new record is that Yorke finally sounds as if, by gosh, he’s decided to make some lemonade and have fun again. The opener, “2 + 2 = 5,” starts in the same languorous way as most of the songs on the last two records, with Yorke muttering about someone who is either (a) our president or (b) Thom Yorke: “Are you such a dreamer?/To put the world to rights?” But then the sampled drumbeat takes five, the guitars start chiming portentously, and you find yourself thinking, Could Radiohead possibly be about to rock? Given recent events, this would seem unlikely, but there you go: Radiohead starts rockin’and with real drums, no less. “You have not been paying attention!” Yorke screams, the last two words sounding suspiciously like “penetration” as he repeats them.
After two more minutes along similar lines, you won’t want to trade the track for anything. And then there’s “Sail to the Moon,” a mere two songs later. It’s built around the kind of plodding piano chords, lambent electric guitar, and dreamy keyboards that made Floyd tunes such as “Us and Them” and “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” seem as if they actually need those seven to 14 minutes. Of course, Radiohead gets through it with relative economy in just over four, Yorke doing his evocatory best to convince us that free-associations such as “I sucked/The moon/I spoke/Too soon” have some real meaning.
And that’s where the Pink Floyd comparisons really stick. In a recent interview, Yorke said he usually picks lyrics and titles simply for the way the words sound. And like all classic stoner albumsand I’m very much thinking of Dark Side of the Moon, which seems like a momentous statement about the end of the ’60s but is really mostly about the stuff that happened to Roger Waters on the way to the studioHail to the Thief feels a lot deeper than it probably is. Radiohead has gone to great lengthsperhaps on the advice of its publicists and accountantsto stress that the title doesn’t necessarily refer to the most recent U.S. presidential election. Anyone searching for evidence to the contrary will find a few references to presidents and kings and underground bunkers in the lyric sheet, but nothing specific enough to make Clear Channel go Dixie Chicks on the band’s ass.
Smart people might find that kind of vacancy troubling, but dumb folks such as myself will find it quite comforting, because it means we can rock out to this album without worrying that we’re missing anything. And the opportunities to rock out are legion: The aforementioned big, dumb grooves are at their biggest and dumbest and grooviest on tracks such as “Go to Sleep,” “There There,” and “Myxomatosis”which, as any T. Rex fan will tell you, “is an animal’s dis-ease.” Sparkle. Shine. Repeat with feeling and an indelible chorus, and there you have it. There’s also a lot of successful electronica on Hail to the Thief: the Underworld-like breakdown at the end of “Sit Down. Stand up”; the vinyl-skipping beats of “The Gloaming” (which was nearly the title of the album); the crisp, Cologne-style electronic drums and bass jabs of “Backdrifts.”
These two styles are alternated neatly with the disc’s dreamier numbers, two of which, “We Suck Young Blood” and “I Will,” sound a lotand I mean a lotlike the decidedly nonrockin’ Low. But here’s the thing about Hail to the Thief: Despite all its accomplished variety, clever husbanding of influences, and stanky grooves, the album is merely excellent rather than stone classic. I can’t put my finger on it. Maybe it’s those your-guess-is-as-good-as-mine lyricsafter all, as Yorke puts it himself, “Just because you feel it/Doesn’t mean it’s there.”
But I suspect the real reason is that, when it comes down to it, Radiohead is just a rock band. It might have peaked with OK Computer; then again, it might make another record just as life-changing next year. If nothing else, Hail to the Thief will let Radiohead get on with its business, which makes the second scenario seem a lot more likely. In the meantime, I’ll be downstairs with the VCR, ’cause I’m pretty sure “Where You End and I Begin” has something to do with flying monkeys. CP