- The Washington Times - Friday, June 13, 2003

Fans of electro-Britpop band Radiohead are no doubt pondering the relentlessly vague word explosion on the band’s sixth studio album, “Hail to the Thief (or, The Gloaming).” The cover print itself is a jittery delirium of seemingly random word association: beef, TV, armed, security, luxuries, media, spiritual, patrol, loss …

Each song title, too, has an abstract thingamajig parenthetically tacked onto it: “(The Boney King of Nowhere)” rounds out the title of the band’s latest single, “There There,” for example.

Or: “A Wolf at the Door (It Girl.Rag Doll).”

I can just hear an impressionable English-lit student … Man, this stuff is deep.

Nah, not really.

To paraphrase George Orwell, from whom Radiohead, all former Oxford University students, borrows the title of “Hail’s” opening song, “2+2=5,” the truth is often right in front of our noses.

No cereal-box decoder rings necessary.

Make no mistake: “Hail to the Thief,” adapted from an anti-Bush jeer heard at many a street protest after the disputed 2000 presidential election, is, for a good chunk of its nearly one-hour running time, a splenetic, left-liberal rant dressed in pseudo-surreal wordplay.

“OK Computer” sounded a pop-art warning against encroaching, dehumanizing machines and global capitalism; “Hail,” for its part, is BBC-fed paranoia about the American superstate and, um, global capitalism.

Cutting through the haze:

Radiohead lyricist and singer Thom Yorke fears multinational, “river-poisoning” corporations that pitch to ever-younger consumers: “We want the sweet meats/We want the young blood/We suck young blood/We want the young blood.”

A jab at what Mr. Yorke probably perceives as the American hegemonic superstate: “Sit down/Stand up/Walk into the jaws of hell/We can wipe you out/Anytime.”

Mr. Yorke is also peeved by the voter apathy that let the monster sneak into the White House: “It is too late now/Because you have not been paying attention.”

And there’s the supposed post-September 11 free speech “clampdown” (I’m borrowing from the cover-art word collage): “Don’t question my authority or put me in the dock.”

Whatever protestation Radiohead is making to the contrary, “Hail” is full of sociopolitical doomsaying.

Now that that’s out of the way, the important point:

“Hail to the Thief” is the most ambitious and musically accomplished album released so far this year.

Radiohead gingerly reintroduces its mid-‘90s pop accessibility while retaining the experimental scope of “OK Computer,” its 1997 concept rock masterpiece.

There are so many painstakingly wound strings of sound and syncopated rhythms throughout the album that it’s tough to digest each track, even after multiple listens.

On songs such as “Sit down. Stand up” and “Sail to the Moon,” Mr. Yorke quietly tinkles a piano while electronic sounds whiz through the front and back of the mix, creating a full-bodied, panoramic wash of beautifully disjointed noise.

But on “Go to Sleep,” Radiohead comes as close to being a band qua band — that is, a group of human beings playing live instruments in the same room — as it has in years.

Mr. Yorke’s initial acoustic guitar figure is simple and engaging; the groove is swinging. More of this would be welcome, but it’s perhaps too much to ask of a band that casually ticks off “laptop” alongside “guitar,” “bass” and “drums” in its personnel credits.

“Where I End and You Begin,” which cautiously nicks the eerie intro of the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” and “We Suck Young Blood” also sound refreshingly analog, especially the latter, with Mr. Yorke’s startlingly plaintive lead vocal and harmonies set to a lazy gallery of hand clapping in the background.

Things go briefly haywire with “The Gloaming,” a jumble of house-music blips and squeaks that sounds badly dated, recalling such bygone mid-‘90s industrial bands as Nine Inch Nails.

“Hail” quickly recovers, though, as drummer Philip Selway and bassist Colin Greenwood introduce the down-to-earth alterna-rock of “There There,” eventually giving way to Ed O’Brien and Jonny Greenwood’s squall of noisy electric guitar. A similar pop sensibility informs the piano-driven “A Punchup at a Wedding.”

Clearly, Radiohead can still sound like a conventional rock band when it wants to, but it seems bored stiff by the form.

The band has a much firmer handhold on electronic music than does, say, Wilco, another critically acclaimed group that Radiohead has subtly but unmistakably influenced over the last few years.

Where Wilco uses electronica to modernize its music post-composition, Radiohead uses it from the ground up. On “Hail,” the electronic experimentalism seems woven into each song’s atmospheric fabric.

Coldplay, too, owes a debt to Radiohead, especially lead singer-pianist Chris Martin, who borrows liberally from Mr. Yorke.

If I may put my cards on the table, I prefer my rock music African rather than European. I’ll take groove over melody, funk over lyricism — in other words, Stones over Beatles.

However, it’s impossible to deny the groundbreaking experimental legacy the Beatles left, a legacy that Radiohead, probably more than any other band going today, is trying to uphold.

If the Beatles’ musical shepherd George Martin were a young man today, I’m convinced this is the kind of music he would choose to produce.

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