Hail to the Thief

Hail to the Thief

As Thom Yorke sat down to type out the lyrics to “A Wolf at the Door”—the near-rap that ends Radiohead’s sixth album, Hail to the Thief—for artist Stanley Donwood, the singer was stunned by the cumulative violence of the images: knives in necks, Stepford wives and clandestine mistresses, dead people dragged through windows. But all that danger and anger was in the air as Radiohead plotted and recorded this dark 2003 effort, its title a reference to George W. Bush’s electoral hijinks, and its songs written and recorded as the United States began its post-9/11 assaults. And on Hail to the Thief, the angst of that era is everywhere: There’s the Orwellian logic of “2 + 2 = 5,” the nuclear fallout of “I Will,” and the plagued race of “Myxomatosis,” named for an especially fatal rabbit pox. Perhaps it was the cumulative effect of early-2000s despair that had inspired Yorke’s bleak lyrics? “Rather than waking you up and it’s like, ‘Uhh, it’s all been a lovely dream,’” the singer later confirmed, “it’s all been a nightmare, and you need to go and get a glass of water now.” Following the creative successes of Kid A and Amnesiac—which found the members of Radiohead rethinking their approach to the studio—the group once again shook things up on Hail to the Thief. In 2002, Yorke and his bandmates decamped to the famed Ocean Way in Los Angeles for two weeks, recording a song every day. For the first time in years, they had real fun, indulging not only in the sunshine outside but in the studio’s big room, where they worked as a cohesive quintet. While still testing out equipment, the group laid down the track that would become “2 + 2 = 5”—and the song’s incisive riff, falsetto vocals, and rhythmic tricks set the stage for Hail to the Thief’s scope. This is an album that finds Radiohead approaching familiar rock territory, from the momentous strum-and-drum anthem “Go to Sleep” to the chiming notes of “Scatterbrain.” But witness the tape-splice wizardry and big beat of “The Gloaming,” or the whirring circuits and clipped rhythms of “Backdrifts”: This is a band that, having ventured far beyond recognizable comforts after OK Computer, was now moving deliberately and defiantly toward the center—at least for a spell. There’s no Radiohead record more vitriolic, nor more emotionally persuasive, than Hail to the Thief—which is fitting, given that it was birthed in a political climate that felt poised to end the world. The dystopian nightmares Radiohead had voiced on every record from the start were coming true—and an ending Yorke had long predicted now seemed to be in bloom. “We are not the same as you,” he sings during “The Gloaming,” drawing a line between those defending the world and those destroying it. With big drums and damning language, strangling solos and corroded electronics, Hail to the Thief is Radiohead’s fight music.

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