Release date: June 2003
Hail to the Thief is the sixth studio album by English alternative rock band Radiohead, released in June 2003. After two Radiohead albums that featured heavily processed vocals, less guitar, and strong influence from experimental electronica and jazz, Hail to the Thief was seen as a slight return to the band's older alternative rock influences, drawing its sound from every era of the band's existence. Recorded relatively quickly in Los Angeles, the album was described by band members as an attempt to find a more "swaggering" sound and a relaxed recording process, in contrast to their tense sessions for Kid A and Amnesiac several years earlier.
At nearly an hour in length, Hail to the Thief is the band's longest album, although many of its songs are within the three minute range, shorter than the band's average. Thom Yorke said he was inspired by Beatles songs of that length. Yorke said his songwriting on the album had been much affected by current events, but he denied having a strictly political intent. It debuted at number one in the United Kingdom and at number three in the United States, where it sold a greater number of copies in its first week than any of Radiohead album to date. Hail to the Thief largely received positive reviews, and the singles taken from it were "There There", "Go to Sleep" and "2 + 2 = 5".
Hail to the Thief was recorded in autumn 2002. The band performed 12 out of its 14 songs at concerts in July and August 2002, with only "Backdrifts" and "The Gloaming" absent from the sets. Several of the songs, like "I Will" and "Sit Down. Stand Up.", date from the 1990s, and the band originally worked on "A Wolf at the Door" during sessions for Kid A, according to an Internet studio diary kept by Ed O'Brien. Some of the lyrics of "Myxomatosis" were taken from the chorus of the B-side song "Cuttooth", and other lyrics first appeared in the artwork by Yorke and Stanley Donwood for the "High and Dry" single in 1995. The song "I Will" was probably inspired by the Amiriyah shelter massacre of 1991, which left Yorke deeply depressed.
Most of the tracks were recorded in two weeks in a Los Angeles studio, the shortest studio sessions for Radiohead since Pablo Honey. A few additional sessions, along with months of mixing work, were later done in Oxford. The album's quick recording process was a compromise so that band members could spend more time with their families (most members had children by this time) and also helped protect against the tension of previous recording sessions. In an interview with Yahoo!, O'Brien said, "This is the first album where, at the end of making it, we haven't wanted to kill each other." Commenting on the relatively short sessions, Yorke said in 2006, "I wish I had another go at [Hail to the Thief]. We wanted to do things quickly, and I think the songs suffered. It was part of the experiment. Every record is part of the experiment."
An unmastered version of the album was leaked onto the Internet several months before it was officially released. Although producer Nigel Godrich posted a message on the official Radiohead message board expressing disappointment over the leak because he felt the band's work was being heard in an incomplete form, Jonny Greenwood said: "Shame it's not a package with the artwork and all, but there you go. I feel bemused, though, not annoyed. I'm glad people like it, most of all. It's a little earlier than we'd expected, but there it is." Those that had heard both versions noted only certain differences when the final CD appeared (for example, "The Gloaming" was one minute shorter in the final version, and there was no guitar-without-vocals introduction to "I Will"). Regardless of the leak, Hail to the Thief sold more copies in its first week than its predecessors, Kid A and Amnesiac, though its overall sales to date have not matched those of Kid A.
The title of the album is considered by some to be a reference to an anti-Bush chant (itself a play on "Hail to the Chief", a march played to announce the arrival of the President of the United States) that was used by activists during the controversy surrounding the 2000 U.S. presidential election. However, the band has emphasised the wider political context of the slogan, citing its use during the 1888 election. In the June 2003 issue of Spin Magazine, Thom Yorke was quoted as saying "If the motivation for naming our album had been based solely on the [recent] U.S. election, I'd find that to be pretty shallow." The album's subtitle was also explained by Yorke: "[The Gloaming] is the imminent sense of moving into the Dark Ages again."
Each song on Hail to the Thief has an official alternative title or subtitle, which is listed in smaller print on the back of the album artwork. Some of the alternative titles are references to lyrics within the song, while others are phrases taken from elsewhere. The entire album has the alternative title The Gloaming, also the name of one of the songs. Yorke said he was considering calling the album itself The Gloaming, but was overruled by other band members for being too "prog rock". The album title, the titles of songs on it, and the alternative titles are all listed with full stops after them (for example, Hail to the Thief., "There There." and "Sit Down. Stand Up."). Within the lyrics booklet, each song's alternative title or subtitle is the one that appears in the heading above its lyrics, instead of the main title. However, the alternative titles are rarely used otherwise, and even the band's setlists use the songs' main titles.
An example of Lettrism, the album artwork is in the style of a road map, with words and phrases in place of buildings. Many of the phrases relate to the album itself or reference lyrics (for example, "Punchup", "We Can Wipe You Out", and "Are You Fresh?"). Although Radiohead are a British band, many of the words are Americanisms or use American spellings (such as "Color" and "Xing"). Graphic artist Stanley Donwood created the artwork in collaboration with Tchock (a pseudonym which Thom Yorke has used several times with regards to Radiohead's artwork). Donwood cited the landscape of Los Angeles, where most of the album was recorded, as the primary inspiration on the album cover which is, in fact, a painting called "Pacific Coast". Donwood said other "maps" in the art refer to the street plans of cities such as London, Grozny, and Baghdad.
As with Kid A and Amnesiac the album was also released in a "special edition" version. This version has exactly the same music but features slightly different cover art by Donwood and Tchock, and a large fold-out "map" or poster containing artwork similar to the cover. The poster was called a "roadmap", a reference by the band to the Bush Administration's ill-fated 2003 plan for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. It also contains colour-coded poems and other writings. Hail to the Thief, like previous Radiohead albums, was also issued on 12" vinyl.
Hail to the Thief featured more conventional use of guitar than the band's previous two albums, and more piano than any Radiohead album to date, but also continued to make use of electronic beats and samples. Band members Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood, in addition to guitar and vocals, are both credited with playing "laptop" on the album, a reference to their sonic manipulations with software programs such as Cubase, Max/MSP (software developers Cycling '74 are thanked in the credits, a trend continued on subsequent albums), and Pro Tools. In addition, Greenwood continued to employ the ondes Martenot, an early electronic instrument he first used on Kid A and Amnesiac.
In interviews, Radiohead members described their attempts to record in a "live" style on Hail to the Thief, not so much to capture the sound of their live concerts, but to achieve more energy and spontaneity with fewer overdubs. They explained that the electronics heard in songs such as "Sit Down. Stand Up." were not added later, but mostly performed in the same room at the same time as the piano, guitar and vocal parts. "On tour in 2001 in America, I think we learned to swagger as a band," Ed O'Brien said in an interview with Yahoo!. "We wanted to capture that on record. We also didn't want to spend too long in the studio." Yorke said, "The last two studio records [Kid A and Amnesiac] were a real headache. We had spent so much time looking at computers and grids, we were like, 'That's enough. We can't do that anymore.' This time, we used computers, but they had to actually be in the room with all the gear." An example of the album's musical blend can be found in its opener, "2 + 2 = 5", which begins with a drum machine rhythm and progresses to a loud rock climax.
Highlighting Radiohead's continuing assimilation of different musical styles, the album liner notes contain thanks from Jonny Greenwood to Jeanne Loriod, a celebrated player of the ondes Martenot who died shortly before the album came out. Greenwood, inspired by the music of French composer Olivier Messiaen (husband of Jeanne Loriod's sister, Yvonne), picked up the ondes during the Kid A period, and played it on Hail songs such as "Where I End and You Begin" and "We Suck Young Blood". Ed O'Brien mentioned The Rolling Stones as an influence on Radiohead's attempts at greater spontaneity, while The Beatles are cited in the songs "A Wolf at the Door" and "I Will". Neil Young was one of Yorke's largest influences during the period, according to interviews, while Yorke said the Krautrock band Can had directly inspired "There There", and Jonny Greenwood mentioned the influence of Siouxsie and the Banshees on its guitar sound.
Describing influences on his lyrics at the time, Yorke cited Dante and Thomas Pynchon, while "2 + 2 = 5" is an allusion to George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. Yorke described his songwriting process on Hail to the Thief as only unintentionally political, saying that he did not seek to make a statement but could not help being influenced by current events. Yorke said he had been listening to the radio frequently in late 2001, after September 11, the War on Terrorism and the war in Afghanistan, and noting down common phrases he heard, which went into his lyrics: "I was cutting these things out, and deliberately taking them out of context, so they're like wallpaper. Then, when I needed words for songs I'd be taking them out of this wallpaper, and they were out of any political context at all." Yorke said the song "Sail to the Moon" was written for his son Noah, born in 2001; the song ends with the lyrics, "maybe you'll be president, but know right from wrong / or in the flood you'll build an ark / and sail us to the moon." Yorke said having children increased his responsibility and commitment to speaking out against what he viewed as injustices that could affect the lives of future generations.