October 2, 2022

Radiohead – Hail to the Thief – Parlophone

It’s a dog’s life, being a seer.

Consider the job description: you have to check out what’s going on, you tell it like it is, then all the gods in heaven and hell dump on you, you’re reviled, vilified, ostracised, exiled, and doomed forever to be scorned, mocked, and disbelieved. Think Job. Think Jeremiah. Think Cassandra. Think wild-eyed ravings, unintelligible prophecies, and plagues of boils.
Oh alright – and a megastar wage on an EMI contract.
(OK – I lied about the boils)

On a good day – precious few of those lately – art does for society what dreams do for people: it processes the stuff that’s either too complex, scary, or random to make sense of 9 to 5. It doesn’t necessarily have to ‘mean’ anything, but, without it, our capacity to discriminate ‘meaning’ is fatally compromised. There’s a time and a place for art that’s diverting, that offers a holiday from the real world; then occasionally something comes along that says “but actually, it’s like this” – and you go – whoah!
Something like ‘Hail to the Thief’.

This album is a nightmare, a beautiful, necessary nightmare. Beautiful in the same way as Grünewald’s Isenheim Altar Triptych, or Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, or anything by Bohuslav Martinu. It’s a Radiohead remix of the musical about the Golem of Prague that Stephen Sondheim never got round to writing (actually, come to think of it, the final track – ‘A Wolf at the Door’ – is a classic Sondheim pastiche).

There’s always been an inclination in Thom’s lyrics towards the world of Grand Guignol and the Brothers Grimm (“cut the kids in half” in ‘Morning Bell’; “squash his head, put it in the pot” in ‘Knives Out’), but it’s never gone as far as this before. (Maybe a tad too far in the case of ‘We suck Young Blood’ – images of a Hammer Horror graveyard set, with zombies dragging leprous stumps through knee-deep clouds of dry ice, gamely keeping up a ragged funereal clap-along.) But dark times merit dark responses, and you won’t find much darker than this outside the Book of Lamentations. Musically, ‘The Gloaming’ and ‘Myxomatosis’ are punitive: the former keeps up an ultra-low-frequency psych-probe-pulse that should come with a health warning, and ‘Myxomatosis’ is a vicious, debilitating bitch of a song, using abrasive, over-flanged guitar that sounds as uncomfortable as nails scratching down a blackboard. Quite right. We deserve it, lord. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

There is some respite – three out of the fourteen tracks share the same lovely, familiar, lyrical ingredients as Lucky, The Tourist, Pyramid Song: ‘Sail to the Moon’ is lush, poignant, dark, bitter-chocolate straight out of the fridge – Sade meets Björk; ‘I Will’ – a moment of unusually low-voiced reassurance from Daddy Thom, a real lullaby, breathy with tenderness and concern; and ‘Scatterbrain’ is a kind of antidote to the psychosis of the preceding ‘Myxomatosis’ – a bitten-in smile of a song that almost apologises for making it all appear so easy.

But this is Radiohead – Radiohead at full stretch – and by God it sounds magnificent.

So, seeing as you raised it – the subject of (stage-whisper) subversion, that is – well, is it or isn’t it?
Reality check – it’s not called the music industry by accident. They don’t get bigger than EMI/Warner Chappell, and their golden goose’s eggs wouldn’t even reach the markets of, say, Freedonia, if the eggs had ‘The King of Freedonia eats babies’ stamped on them. So, sure, we all know what’s going on here, but they’d have a hard time proving it, which is about as subversive as it can get, really. What’s interesting here is that this was how the best art that came out of the former eastern bloc used to have to be constructed – around associative sets of coded critiques rooted in the free-floating islands of metaphor and allusion. That these strategies should have now begun to be adopted by one of the biggest mainstream bands around speaks volumes about the fragility of the relationship between Freedonia and the rest of the planet, but hey, who’s a sore loser?
“Just cos you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there.”
Sure, whatever you say, boss.