Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’ Is 20, But Let’s Talk About ‘Hail to the Thief’ Instead

The truths of existence are terrifying for some and uninteresting for others. One person’s warning sign is another person’s reassurance, and one can become the other given the right filtration of information. In 2003, Radiohead sought to mold a truth out of their own confusing times. They’d been doing so since 1997, pondering whether the Information Age was a curse on OK Computer and articulating a more abstract despair on Kid A and Amnesiac. But all three albums had been written and recorded before 9/11, and naturally, the band’s response to that most seismic of world events was to apparently pull out their “The End Is Near” signboards.

Singer Thom Yorke told the Toronto Star in 2003 that he was living with a “deep, profound terror” every day and that Radiohead’s then-upcoming album Hail to the Thief was the result of succumbing to that fear despite his best efforts not to. Subtitled The Gloaming and overflowing with nearly an hour of dark, frigid songs, the album indeed turned out to be a grueling account of a world gone foul with political, societal, and environmental rot. It sold nicely and was well-received, but the band themselves have regarded it as something of an embarrassment, a rush job that needed some editing. That need to correct themselves from a perceived misstep led to In Rainbows, an album that feels like a warm, loving caress from a soulmate you’ll never meet. In Rainbows did even better with critics and benefitted sales-wise from its paradigm-shifting pay-what-you-can release. Lost in a crop of prizewinners, the sickly black sheep that is Hail to the Thief remains. It’s not an easy thing to love, seeing as it so willingly embraces darkness, but much like in navigating the online news cycle, perspective is everything.

OK Computer has become immortal via its influence on many rock bands afterward and the perpetual fascination with tech-dystopias amongst nerds. It has an enduring cult, something that Hail to the Thief doesn’t really have, save for a few enlightened stragglers. OK Computer is buttoned-up, well-groomed, generally presentable. Thief is snaggle-toothed, with too much hair growing in weird places. OK Computer is prepared to be adored and has been for 20 years. This doesn’t make it bad, but it does make it (*whispers*) kind of boring to root for. Let’s remedy that. If there is one dystopic Radiohead album to listen to right now, it should be Hail to the Thief. Though it just as vividly illustrates despair, it’s also—bizarrely—an incredibly fun and therapeutic rock album, making it Radiohead’s definitive work over OK Computer.

It bears reminding that Hail to the Thief was the band’s “return to rock” after the Kid A / Amnesiac sessions alienated the guitar evangelicals who boosted their 90s albums. Radiohead did not disappoint, opening the curtains of Thief with the bombastic “2+2=5.” The song—essentially a miniaturization of Radiohead’s previous epic “Paranoid Android”—uses the recently bestselling 1984 as a jumping-off point to explore… well, it actually doesn’t go too far from what Orwell originally wrote about totalitarian governments policing thoughts and creating new truths. It only vaguely applies those ideas to the new-newspeak of the Bush/Blair era. Far more important is the horror-movie intensity with which Yorke both moans out the introductory lyrics and bleats the iconic “YOU HAVE NOT BEEN / PAYING ATTENTION” explosion in the middle. The band supports his ranting with guitars playing a modified omnibus progression (the musical signifier for shit going down) before ricocheting like stray bullets towards the end and coming to a dead stop, as though a power cord was yanked out. That Brechtian, cabaret theatricality is Thief’s key characteristic, imbuing the chaos with something resembling humor.

This isn’t to say that OK Computer doesn’t have its own moments of looseness. After all, “Paranoid Android” itself was composed practically on a lark, while “Electioneering” has often been decried as the album’s weak link only because it decides to shake off producer Nigel Godrich’s sparkle and, uh, actually rock. By and large, though, it’s a solemn album whose musical sophistication, while dazzling, can draw attention to its mopiness. It also offers few solutions to its paranoia other than the simplistic “stop and smell the roses” epilogue of “The Tourist.” Through being pessimistic but also bonkers, Thief posits something new, something radical: what if the bad timeline is actually kind of rad?

Songs like “Sit Down. Stand Up” and especially “We Suck Young Blood” can’t be taken entirely seriously because they’re simply doing too much. The former slowly builds tension underneath Yorke’s keening threats of military subjugation, and the eventual release is a sonic panic attack. It also kind of sounds like a dance party, what with the rhythm section riffing on a drum ‘n’ bass pattern and doofy laser-beam synths zooming every which way. More explicit is “We Suck Young Blood,” based around a comically despondent piano progression, intentionally flubbed handclap percussion, and a wordless falsetto hook that recalls the sheet-wearing, “I got a rock” variety of ghost instead of more malevolent spirits. The abrupt middle outburst, which literally ends with Yorke pounding random piano keys, is the wink-and-nudge acknowledgment to the listener that the doom-and-gloom act is just that: an act.

For every semi-parody of Radiohead’s schtick, there are songs which find both sides of the band—the restless innovators and the moody doomsayers–in perfect harmony. “Go to Sleep” marries folk-rock to a strange but fluid 10/8 time signature as Yorke plaintively wishes for the day’s misery to “wash all over [him]” like a dream. Jonny Greenwood’s juddering guitar solo is all the venting Yorke truly needs. The ratcheting, Can-meets-Chemical Brothers momentum of “Where I End and You Begin” fuels a more personal kind of anxiety than the global woes found elsewhere. “I will eat you alive / there’ll be no more lies,” murmurs Yorke to an enemy, Tony Blair, or himself. In another neck of the woods, the earthy “There There” forms Thief‘s centerpiece. Yorke’s gnarled hollow-body guitar and the trundling percussion sound as though they were grown out of soil, a sound made visually real by the dreamlike, stop-motion-animated accompanying video. Inspired by the 70s UK children’s TV series Bagpuss, the fantastical elements of the clip—the ancient forest setting, the rodent tea party, the magic jacket that’s both a boon and a curse—are the clearest articulation of Thief‘s dominant tone: a child’s bedtime story.

Yorke wrote these songs as fairy tales to help himself and his then-newborn son Noah cope with an unfair, unreasonable world. In “Sail to the Moon,” Yorke hopes that the boy will grow up to be a president who’ll “know right from wrong” and carry civilization off in an ark, a scenario that would be from the Bible if the language didn’t use gentle words like “moonbeams.” Closer “A Wolf at the Door” is much harsher, a final barrage of cynicism underscored by Yorke’s quasi-rapping and the band’s collapsing, gothic waltz. Even there, nameless government agents are portrayed by the titular “wolf,” a pop-up book villain that’s outsmarted in the end if the song’s major-key resolution is to be taken at face value. The paranoid fantasies in Yorke’s head are just boogeymen: scary in the dark but silly and kind of pathetic in the light of day.

Since these are all grand fables, it’s only fitting that Radiohead pull out their most melodramatic, exaggerated performances. The fact that said performances utilize the widest variety of sound design on any of their albums—rocking out with jagged guitars in one song then spinning tapestries of piano and whirring electronics the next—only adds to Thief‘s madcap, Brothers Grimm-inspired atmosphere. It’s a mood that’s replicated nowhere else in their catalogue, or in the work of most bands, for that matter. You’re not supposed to be theatrical and political, a balance many bands attempted to pull off in the Iraq War days. Radiohead faced the fucked-up situation before them, took in all its suffering, and decided it would make for some damn fine stories.

Hail to the Thief has never been perfect. It doesn’t have the influence of OK Computer and Kid A, nor is it a confident, archetypal “classic album” like In Rainbows. But it’s one of the strangest protest albums ever made, evoking terror and awe while wringing catharsis out of it all. Its songs keel over in pain then let out a hearty chortle seconds later. It also isn’t afraid to be goofy and over-the-top, knowing that those qualities are balms in their own way. Hail to the Thief is Radiohead’s greatest statement because it proudly displays the left-field musical intuition that makes them the rock band of rock bands. But more than that, it’s still relevant and necessary today, unloading confused rage upon despotic administrations and—crucially—not denying a future for humanity. The wolf at the door can be kept at bay for a little while longer.

Phil is scatterbrained on Twitter.

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