Just 'cause you feel it, doesn't mean it's there: A look back at Radiohead's Hail to The Thief, ten years later

In the halcyon days of file sharing in 2003, Radiohead’s sixth album, Hail to The Thief leaked a good two-and-a-half months before its June 9th release date. And proving that an album leak doesn’t really hurt sales of a record—it debuted at number three on the Billboard Top 200 chart. I’ve always thought of HTTT as an “inessential” Radiohead album—similar to Pablo Honey. It’s just a record of theirs that doesn’t get talked about very much. It’s not that it is full of terrible songs; it has some great songs on it, and some of their better-known, latter day “singles” are pulled from this album (“There, There” and “Go to Sleep.”)

Hail to The Thief was never as immediate as the holy trinity of Radiohead albums—The Bends, OK Computer, and Kid A. HTTT was an album that, even though I had downloaded the leak prior to my summer break from college, I purchased it the day after it came out (I was stuck at work on the actual release date and couldn’t get to a store in time to grab it.) I even splurged and bought the “special edition” of the album, packaged in a flimsy cardboard envelope that reveals a large poster featuring expanded album art. This is an album that I rarely, if at all, go back to. When I was in the habit of repurchasing things on vinyl, this was never even a record I considered.

It’s been ten years (yikes!) since Hail to The Thief was released. So this seems like as good of time as any to revisit this album, to see if time has been kind to it, and to see if I’ve labeled it unfairly.

The title alone has not aged well. This was Radiohead’s “politically leaning” record (also their “L.A. record.”) The term “Hail to The Thief” was coined in response to the 2000 Presidential election. The first G.W. Bush term, and the “war or terror” weigh heavily within. All of this is a fading memory by now, but at the time, this was an artistic response to what was happening in the world. But now, a decade removed, it seems really dated.

Recorded “live”—meaning there were little to no overdubs throughout the album, and all five members playing in the room together, Radiohead did a bulk of the work for HTTT in the span of two weeks. However the mixing and sequencing created tension within the band—Thom Yorke himself has said that the album would benefit from the songs being sequenced. Even though in-house producer Nigel Godrich was, again, at the boards for this album, it has a different sound than any of the previous records he produced for the band. Maybe it’s an “L.A. sound,” or maybe it just sounds overloaded—it’s a long album, and at times it falters under its own weight. Stylistically, the album is all over the place—after the experimental and electronic influence that hung over Kid A and Amnesiac, HTTT is mostly a guitar driven record. I say mostly because it does take some detours involving lots of beeps and boops and artificial drum sounds.

There are some excellent songs on HTTT—songs that hold up well after a decade. But there are some clunkers—structurally, the album’s track list has a bad habit of building up steam, then coming to a complete standstill on some of the slower songs. The one-two punch opening of “2+2=5” and “Sit Down, Stand Up,” is diminished by the some what boring “Sail to The Moon”—a song that pretty much never goes anywhere.  The frenetic and somewhat menacing “Where I Begin and You And,” the fuzzed- out “Myxamatosis,” and the bass-heavy “A Punch up at A Wedding” are all still outstanding, as is the album’s lead single, the percussion heavy “There, There.”

Looking at where HTTT falls within the Radiohead canon is worth nothing—after the pressures following OK Computer, the band delivered the ambitious Kid A, then toured in support of its companion piece (and slightly lesser) album Amnesiac. The following year, they road-tested material that ended up on Hail to The Thief, and then toured again in support of it. By the time the band reached their set at the 2004 Cochella Music Festival, it seemed that they were pretty much sick of being Radiohead, and were perplexed by the fact that they were playing after a recently reunited Pixies—a group that was highly influential in Radiohead’s early days.

(going for a look that says "thom likes leather." although he is vegan, i guess, so this is confusing.)

It is also worth noting what falls after HTTT in the Radiohead canon—a two-year gap of silence, broken by Thom Yorke’s 2006 solo LP The Eraser, along with a summer tour where new material was performed throughout. The material, written in 2005, had been part of a failed attempt at a studio album, produced by someone other than Nigel Godrich. Later, in 2007, they would reconvene with Godrich behind the boards, and record In Rainbows—a paradigm shifting record for many reasons: not only was it self-released after HTTT fulfilled their six-record deal with EMI, it was the first record to be released with the now infamous “Pay What You Want” business model. It was also available as an $80 limited edition boxed set.

Revisiting Hail to The Thief ten years after its arrival, I was struck by how it is not a bad Radiohead album. But it’s also not that great. The pacing crawls along at a snail’s pace, specifically towards the end. In listening to it the other day, I couldn’t recall when I last listened to it from start to finish, or at least listened to any song off of it. It, as I expected, as not aged poorly, but also not aged well—unlike your Ok Computers and your Kid As, those are just timeless records. HTTT is 2003. Upon release, it was given a glowing 9.3 by a then not as important Pitchfork, although the writing in the review itself is god-awful. By 2009, when the “cash grab” reissue dropped, the album’s score was downgraded to an 8.6.

There are of course the obligatory b-sides that accompany Hail to The Thief—the Bends-era sounding “I Am a Wicked Child,” the simple, acoustic, and incredible “Gagging Order,” and the skittering “Paperbag Writer.” These, by comparison, are all drastically different from one another, would maybe have not worked in the sequencing of the album, but are much stronger songs than some that ended up in the final track list.

Radiohead’s debut, Pablo Honey, turns 20 this year. The record they’ve distanced themselves the most from, pulling it out now is like stepping into a time machine—it is just dripping with the early 90s Brit-Pop sound. It’s the sound of a band still figuring out who they are; it’s the sound of the time it was made in.

The consensus around Hail to The Thief is that it’s not a groundbreaking album, but it didn’t need to be. It was Radiohead’s self-awareness put to tape; after bending genres, they reached a point in their career where this was the record they needed to make, because even 10 years into it, they were still trying to figure out who they were.