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Revisiting Radiohead’s (Relatively) Spontaneous ‘Hail to the Thief’

Radiohead Hail to the Thief
Capitol Records

Radiohead labored over ‘Kid A’ to the point where they had spent way more time in the studio recording their 2000 masterpiece than they had planned. They also ended up with way more music than they needed. The leftover tracks surfaced on the following year’s ‘Amnesiac.’ And by then, Radiohead were exhausted and pretty sure they didn’t want to make another record like ‘Kid A.’ At least for the time being.

So when they entered the studio in late summer 2002 with producer Nigel Godrich, the plan was to make their next album, ‘Hail to the Thief,’ quickly and spontaneously. Where ‘Kid A’ / ‘Amnesiac’ featured long, drawn-out pieces built on electronic foundations, ‘Thief’ would head in the opposite direction, with quick bursts of guitar-based music that sounded more like 1995’s sorta-rock opus ‘The Bends’ than anything that the group had recorded since 1997’s ‘OK Computer’ made them the most important alternative band in the world.

Still, ‘Hail to the Thief’ is a complex piece – almost like an electric-guitar version of ‘Kid A’ in that respect. Subtitled ‘The Gloaming,’ the album includes 14 songs, which also come with their own subtitles. And like its predecessors, the record’s futuristic musical themes clash with the lyrical themes that fear the very same future. There are political undercurrents to songs like ‘2 + 2 = 5,’ ‘Go to Sleep’ and ‘There There’ too. But mostly ‘Hail to the Thief’ is about general unease at the turn of the century.

The album debuted at No. 3 and has sold more than a million copies since its release on June 9, 2003. None of ‘Thief’’s singles made the Top 40, but ‘There There’ managed to climb to No. 14 on the modern-rock chart. Radiohead knew going in that this would be their last record for a major label. When they returned four years later with ‘In Rainbows,’ they had revolutionized the music business by offering pay-what-you-want downloads of the album. And the record, picking up where ‘Hail to the Thief’ left off, greets future shock with the same open arms and an even more open mind.

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