Radiohead's Hail To the Thief is a product of its moment: recorded in late 2002, during the American and British governments' slow, inevitable march to Iraq, of which lead singer Thom Yorke was an outspoken opponent. Hail is filled with images of monstrous, Orwellian force from which there is no escape. On "Sit down. Stand up," Yorke assumes the voice of Big Brother, giving rote, meaningless orders — "Sit down/Stand up" — over and over. With equal parts whine and sneer, he says, "We can wipe you out anytime." Radiohead have always been paranoid and pessimistic, but thanks to recent history, people who used to seem paranoid now seem prudent.
Hail begins with "2+2=5," a brooding indictment of an apathetic public; the title is pulled directly from George Orwell's 1984. While the world was being ruined, Yorke says, you were at home, allowing yourself to believe the lies. Now it's too late. In a precious falsetto a boy might use in church, he sings, "It's the devil's way now/There is no way out." But a moment later he's manic, screaming, "Because you have not been paying attention!" Yorke then meditates on the words paying attention, repeating them until he sounds like he's shaking with rage as he sings.
Despite the anger and bitterness, Hail to the Thief is more musically inviting than Radiohead's last two outings. The album's fourteen tracks — particularly the percussive, mesmerizing "There There" — are more tuneful and song-focused than 2000's Kid A or 2001's Amnesiac. Electronic textures still abound amid the guitars and piano — there's still synth-y sonic schmutz and squiggles that seem like data transmitted from another plane of sound. But there are so many delicious melodies here, so much that's both soothing and twisted and catchy, so much to sing along with, even if our prognosis is grim.
Consider "Myxomatosis," definitely the best song ever about a diseased mongrel cat. The feline protagonist has just returned from outside and has possibly had sex, but now he's confused, and he stammers against a tense heartbeat drum, "I don't know why I feel so tongue-tied." Thanks to the funky fuzzed-out guitar, somehow the name of the disgusting five-syllable rabbit disease flows from Yorke's lips like poetry.
"A Punch-up at a Wedding" is a soulful, melancholy groove anchored by a snarling bass line and Yorke's efficiency with lyrics. The imagery is so clear that the song becomes a short story. You can hear the family, dysfunctional beyond repair, hurling leftover anger at one another after perhaps the worst moment of their collective life: "You had to piss on our parade/You had to shred our bigday." And yet the beautiful piano chords and Yorke yelling, "It's a drunken punch-up at a wedding!" make it difficult not to sing along.
Hail's final song, "A Wolf at the Door," asserts the impossibility of escaping your demons. "I keep the wolf from the door," Yorke sings, "But he calls me up/Calls me on the phone/Tells me all the ways that he's gonna mess me up." It's sad, dark, witty and hilarious all at once. Yorke has no answer for the wolf but to try and coo himself to peace. And the rest of us have Radiohead to help us get through.