I'm going to try to stick to description and leave my opinions for the next two days, though some bleed is inevitable. Radiohead's new album, Hail to the Thief, was leaked a few months ago onto the Internet, and it's interesting that the final versions of these songs seem to be no different from the leaked versions. This gives the impression that the band isn't particularly bothered by the downloading, and trust that the faithful will go and buy this CD when it comes out next week, which is a healthy and probably accurate way of thinking.
The reception of new Radiohead albums lately has centered on these vaguely ontological questions: "Will they go back? Will they sound like OK Computer again? Will they rock again? Will they be themselves this time?" The received wisdom seems to be that OK Computer and The Bends are their best albums and that these represent some kind of normative state they've strayed from. Without plugging in any opinion of their work, this seems suspect out of the gate. Do people often wish the Beatles and Stones had gone back to their first three albums? Do people wish Destiny's Child would go back to bad adult-contemporary ballads? Well, yes, actually. Someone will always be there to stump for whatever's absent, but the logical fallacy of time is a big roadblock for Radiohead. They've never seemed a particularly good rock band, in terms of getting sweaty and providing hard timekeeping and helping something explode. OK Computer seems like a happy accident—they realized they do long and slow better than short and sharp but discovered it through that album's very Queen-y, theatrical pacing and structure. I don't think that will happen again.
I hear their dialectic progression out of order—Kid A and Amnesiac are the thesis, The Bends and OK Computer are the antithesis, and Hail to the Thief is the synthesis, though it's much closer to the last two than any of the "rock" albums. Have you ever been to Oxford? It's where they're from, and it feels central to their sound. It's a very pretty town, full of these gorgeous old college buildings and a charming but highly commercialized high street, the seat of higher learning and chain stores both. It's a soothing place to be, and I maintain that singer Thom Yorke and the rest of Radiohead are in the business of lullabies. That's what they discovered with Kid A and Amnesiac, that their home strengths are drones and associative ... things. They don't necessarily want to write songs, I think, so their "failure" to do so is simply using the wrong measuring stick. Especially on this album, which rarely gets very physical, the process feels like walking through Oxford a bit drunk, thinking about how insane the election was, hearing ghostly, liminal water sounds, oh, damn, now there's a Waterstone's where that shop used to be, what won't they change in this town, oh, listen to those church bells, they never stop. ...
Yorke's voice is their guide, the factor that determines their context. On the first two albums, he was chasing a Kurt Cobain effect, a tortured classic-rock growl, but then on OK Computer he let loose in clear and full voice, louder and stronger than before. (A friend of mine insists it's their "gay record.") Starting with Kid A, Yorke started restraining his voice to produce a textured legato phrasing, much more like a violin than a horn. (Is this why string quartets are covering Radiohead songs all of sudden?) The opening song, "2+2=5," is one of the few that moves like a rock song, and it's one of the easiest to remember. They've done away with most of the electronic rhythm beds and decoration, though some bits are still stuck to the studio walls. ("Backdrifts" sounds a bit like an Amnesiac outtake.) The loveliest tune, "Sail to the Moon," has a set of vaguely political lyrics that are typical of the album: "Maybe you'll/ be president/ But know/ right from wrong/ Or in the flood you'll/ build an Ark/ and sail us to the moon." I am completely taken by this song, but I am simultaneously aware that these lyrics would not be out of place on a Jewel record.
The effect isn't quite a lullaby; I've got that wrong. He's keeping himself awake with these worries, these phrases he repeats over and over—"The raindrops, the raindrops," or "they will suck you down to the other side"—and then he needs to talk himself back to sleep, or off the ledge. They've been like this for a few years, even before Yorke became a parent and had another mind to soothe. Amnesiac did the soothing bit, too, but Hail really makes it explicit. Look at the song titles: "Go to Sleep," "There There." Despite the rumors of this being a political record, the anger doesn't bubble up much. In the press kit, Yorke says: "We didn't start out to make a protest record at all. That would have been too shallow." That's disappointing, considering how political their Web site is and how religiously young listeners follow these guys. Maybe this why the Republicans can ride their Humvees all over the world, because protest is "shallow"? But isn't that just like a university town? A great gig, more likely to make a fella sit down than stand up. Or is that just England?
P.S. Thom Yorke was the guest on the funniest Space Ghost ever, doing a fabulous deadpan. I recommend that episode to everyone. (Björk also appears.)