Its election primary season here in Ohio. Elections and politics often make me think of the protest music that usually results from any injustice (or for this year the stupidity) that follows contested elections. This election season is no different except that just when you thought the current crop of candidates was set at a low bar, someone like Donald Trump hijacks his adopted party and rides it to hell. While the musical response to this kind of political theater is usually direct and in your face, some are just as effective using subtle and relaxed methods.
Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief is one of those relaxed and subtle rock albums that hides it’s bitter political observations behind sharp melodies and electro beat driven rhythms. Produced by longtime collaborator Nigel Goodrich and recorded after a long tour supporting Amnesic, Hail To The Thief was inspired by the scandalous 2000 election that resulted in George W. Bush becoming president of the United States for a second term. Even though that happened in 2000, there was plenty of pent up anger and disgust (even from British citizens like Thom Yorke) over the events that transpired.
In contrast to the last two albums before Hail To The Thief, Radiohead went into a California studio with a relaxed demure. The recording sessions were relaxed and almost effortless in how quickly the album was recorded. With very little vocal processing or fancy art jazz influences, Radiohead had returned to being the art rock band that made straight forward albums like 1995’s The Bends.
Like that album, the melodies were strong, but this time it would be aided by sprinkles of electronica over a drums, bass, piano and guitar arrangements. This was Radiohead being dense again with a swirling production that reveals new nuances with each listen. While trendy and edgy of the moment, the folkie album art hints to the straightforward complexity of the messages behind the music. Even Thom York’s vocals were clear and un processed, re introducing fans to his occasionally fragile and careful falsetto.
Initially it grew on me like many Radiohead albums after OK Computer did. I was never a fan of the four singles from Hail… and never felt they did it real justice. For anyone willing to dig deeper however, Hail To the Thief reveals many sublime musical treats.
“Scatterbran”, one of the album’s best tracks recalls the ’60s in much the same way OK Computer did while “I Will” features Yoke’s dual vocal overlapping his falsetto with his flat drone-like delivery. It was one of the albums most haunting moments. Like small samples of delicious candy, most of its songs are short and to the point, like early Beatles stuff. Tom Yorke even said that he was inspired by the Beatles and how they made short to the point songs. Other less direct influences like Michael Stipe could be heard in some of the abstract phrasing of the lyrics.
Most of the songs are mid-tempo, but on occasion the band steps out this mold to make brash music like the confrontational “My Yamatosis”. Other template busters include the almost bluesy backbeat of “Punch up at a Weeding”, the last single from the album. Those songs aside little stands out sonically, maybe because this kind of album may not produce recognizable pop hits, despite being a top seller. Aside from being critically acclaimed, it won a Grammy for Best Engineered Album for its recording quality in 2003.
That kind of anonymity is part of what makes this album one that sounds better with time. Its message of anger is still one that resonates today with many of the same political and social issues that inspired it still in vogue.
With Trump running for President and all the drama that has come with that, perhaps the next true follow up to this album will be the next Radiohead project due sometime in 2016. There never seems to be any shortage of political satire in America from which to draw material for political protest music. All I can say is stay angry Radiohead.