The Power of Possibility

Radiohead's Hail to the Thief

The Power of Possibility

Radiohead's Hail to the Thief

The Power of Possibility
The year on rewind.
June 4 2003 2:23 PM

Radiohead's Hail to the Thief

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Dear Sasha,

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First, my apologies to John Darnielle and Slate readers for some very sloppy writing. What I was trying to say is that he, like, say, Cat Power, has something of a reputation for being a less than predictable live performer (which, I guess, will make Mr. Darnielle feel no better). But even that had no place in my exchange with you—I think Darnielle as the Mountain Goats is a singular artist, and let's leave it at that. And then a big "Geez, I'm sorry" directly to you, too: My "blood pressure" crack was meant to be ... if not funny, theatrical.

And why not keep going: Timbaland: I love your stuff, and I meant every word when I wrote in a Slate year-end-wrap-up music club last December that 2002 was yours. I'd really like to check out your record collection sometime, and I have some rare Tom Ze CDs in mine I bet you'd dig. Jay-Z: I am respectful of your opinion on the war in Iraq, but I still don't know—and Sasha, no knock on him, hasn't helped me here—who the "we" are screaming with you for non-intervention. Further, with all due respect, my point was to show you no disrespect, just to express the tiniest doubt that your protest—like every other protest to appear in any pop song I have ever heard—changed any minds or created any solidarity among the already convinced and like-minded. Great Bangra-thing hit, though.

Colin Greenwood, brother Jonny, Phil Selway, Ed O'Brien: You've been so gracious to stand by patiently while yet another Radiohead conversation revolved around Thom. You should talk to Thom about that (again)—it's largely his fault. But, OK, my bad, too. I really do think you guys can play, even better than Echo and the Bunnymen (though the way they did the Doors thing and the Jefferson Airplane thing did bring me back to my first joint). And, fellas, I know Sasha and I are at odds here, but in that first half-minute or so of "There There"—before that infectious little Creedence-like guitar riff enters—I do hear Motown, early Miracles (and you can look it up, Sasha). Let me put it this way, guys: If you had met at a sprawling public high school in Georgia rather than at the Abingdon School, you might have become a great jam band, and you wouldn't have had to worry about a singer.

Thom: I have my small problems with Thief. It's two or three songs too long. I could have done without "Scatterbrain," which, with its cascading arpeggios, sounds like it was left off OK Computer, and "Go to Sleep," which sounds like it was left off REM's Out of Time. I was up for a couple of more guitar-based rockers. But "should" is not a word a critic should use, so let me apologize for that, too.

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Sasha: I don't think I can work up another broad Radiohead rhapsody: the grand and surprising chords and chord turns, the way the band maintains a handcrafted feel in even their most cerebral electronic venturings, the cut-and-paste lyric fragments that seem to conjure the twitchy ambivalence of the weather of lived life just now as no one else's lyrics do, for me anyway. (Sorry. I guess I had an overture to a rhapsody.) Let me just say that what I mostly get from a Radiohead song, one I like a lot, is what I would argue is the essential "protest" of all the best pop music: a sense of possibility. Let me just talk a bit more about "There There," which I think is one of the very best songs Radiohead has ever done as a band. The lyrics are so many images of nightmarish dread—broken branches to trip on, sirens luring you. But the sound. ... Somehow, and I still can't get how, the song gyrates out of its mid-tempo groove (complete with doo-wop background vocals) and into a guitar mash-up worthy of Crazy Horse. No way you sensed that coming, Sasha. And maybe that's what Yorke is singing about at the end of "There There": that songs, good ones, are "accidents waiting to happen," aleatoric miracles. And if you keep risking and experimenting, if every band member brings his energy to bear, you will stumble on something not done before, a pop transfiguration. I hear that, and feel it emotionally, when I play "There There": The sound trumps the melancholic hopelessness of the lyrics. And I sense possibility, despite everything.

I know there is music that does that for you, too, Sasha, or you wouldn't do what you do. I hope you find lots more of it, if not on a Radiohead album, somewhere else.

Take care, over and out,

Gerry

Gerald Marzorati is the editorial director of the New York Times Magazine.