As Radiohead had already released three albums by the end of 2002 (assuming you count the EP/mini-LP live album I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings), it was particularly surprising to me when Hail To The Thief came out in the summer of 2003. For a band with a reputation for being studio rats and perfectionists, it seemed to be a adjustment of the celestial order when the band took four years to deliver another album. I picture some winged creature bathed in light saying to itself, "ha ha, that'll teach those Oxford-ites for trying to keep up a Beatles-esque release rate!!" But let's set chronology and celestial beings aside for a moment and consider Hail To The Thief as a point in Radiohead's career that is important for almost every reason but its statement and musical experimentation. This was perhaps the first album in Radiohead's career that didn't seem to have some major artistic thesis, some major change or development to offer. I think some reviewers drug it over the coals for this; hey, Radiohead were supposed to make albums that changed the world, weren't they??
If Hail To The Thief sounds like a victory lap, a consolidation of everything that made the band great up 'til that point, than it's not a bad thing. During the sessions for this album, Radiohead were riding high on the good will from the Kid A and Amnesiac albums as well as what Ed O'Brien described as a "swagger" that the band developed on tour. Combine all of this with the fact that Hail To The Thief was recorded in a fairly short period of time (apparently, most of the songs were finished in two weeks), hardly the year or three birthing process of Radiohead of old. And the thing was recorded in a Los Angeles studio, of all places, hardly the sort of locale associated with the glowering English band.
So here's the score so far: an album that consolidates all of the strengths of the band; an album that was recorded coming off of successful tours during which the band had developed a "swagger"; an album that was recorded in sunny LA; an album that was recorded in a short amount of time. Would Radiohead go pop?? Would Radiohead return to the anthemic alt rock of The Bends??
Well, not so much. But kind of.
The immediate impression of Hail To The Thief is that it is both more of a guitar oriented album and more of a full band sound than the Kid A/Amnesiac recordings. This much is true, but the band have not forgotten the lessons of those albums. This album ably makes use of keyboards, loops, drum machines, and other experimental elements alongside the guitars and pianos of old. The difference is that Hail To The Thief has a more "live" sound to it. It is an immediate and sprawling album that leaves only a few details and secrets to pick up on subsequent listens. If and when there all those electronic elements, you get the impression they were played "live" in a room with the rest of the band. Which, apparently, is how it was done, at least according to the always dubious Wikipedia.
Forget the alternate song titles and oddly memorable signs-making-up-street-maps artwork and Hail To The Thief reveals itself as Radiohead's most self assured and effortless album. There is indeed a swagger about it, a drunken headlong rush that may not make for Radiohead's most accomplished or groundbreaking work but is still worthy to stand alongside their best.
That's because it was at this point in their career when they had many tools at their disposal and began to focus on making fantastic songs with a confidence and power that it always felt like the band never knew they had. This sense of swagger, confidence, and "focus on the songs" would be more prominent on 2007's In Rainbows but it is here, too. Hail To The Thief is Radiohead's longest album but there isn't a clunker here; frequently one is pleasantly surprised by interesting twists and unexpected turns, whether it's the towering drum intricacies of 'There There', the short-but-touching 'I Will'; the emphatic "raindrops" chant of 'Sit Down, Stand Up', the guitar led groove of 'Go To Sleep' which picks up where 'I Might Be Wrong' left off; 'We Suck Young Blood' with its absurd handclaps and a sneaky breakdown at the 2:51 mark; and finally 'Myxomatosis' with its thick, blaring dance club keyboards and Yorke's free floating vocal performance that winds in and out of the song. Trent Reznor's last two albums as Nine Inch Nails to date--Year Zero and The Slip--may not be as well known or surprising as The Downward Spiral, but there's a sense of confidence, swagger, and almost fun about them. The same goes for Radiohead's Hail To The Thief and In Rainbows.
Hail To The Thief is neither a revolution nor an evolution. Rather it is a kind of lateral step, the sound of Radiohead ceasing to fret about what they're doing and instead merely enjoying the simple process of making music together. It isn't as light hearted and lean as In Rainbows and it isn't as important/surprising as OK Computer and Kid A, but it is still a really great album.