Hail to the Thief could very well be a make-or-break album for Radiohead. If Kid A was an allowed indulgence, and Amnesiac an afterthought, Thief should be the record that propels the band to a new career high. It’s not that Radiohead shouldn’t be experimenting, it’s just that they haven’t excelled at it since 1997’s OK Computer. “The Gloaming” seems to employ the pitter-patter surface noise left in the Pro Tools trash bin of their last two albums, while a few lonely seconds of lovely piano stands as a reminder of just how cold and sterile the rest of “Backdrifts” truly is. That said, many of Thief‘s songs build from quiet sonic deliberation into all-out guitar-rock. “We Suck Young Blood,” a cautionary Hollywood tale (Thom Yorke warns, “Our veins are thin/Our rivers poisoned”), is a creepy handclap-filled dirge that begs to erupt into an angry rocker (and, of course, it does…sort of).
In a post-9/11, pre-apocalyptic world, Yorke’s paranoia finally seems, well, warranted. He sings “We can wipe you out anytime” on “Sit Down, Stand Up,” percussive bullets pelting down as he adds repeatedly, “The rain drops, the rain drops!” The album’s title, culled from the opening track “2+2=5,” could be an ode to online music pirates (the kind who leaked Thief almost two months before its official release date), or it could be one of many references to our very own presidential pirate. “Sail to the Moon” finds Yorke ranting in a familiar mournful wail: “Maybe you’ll be President/But know right from wrong.” The album’s best moment is “Where I End You Begin”; Yorke’s lyrics and vocals haven’t been this grounded or accessible in years. Rather than explode back to form, though, Radiohead seems content to take it inch by inch. The album sits comfortably somewhere in between the computer-generated Kid A and the prog-rock splendor of OK Computer, which is an inch in the right direction but still a whole step away.