Radiohead’s new album Hail to the Thief should be as dull and unsurprising as a Susan Sontag commencement speech. From its title—yet another recycling of the W.-stole-the-election trope, even though the band insists it’s about an election in 1888, not 2000—to its cover art, which is crammed with buzzwords like OIL, SECURITY, and FEAR, the album promises a lefty monotone.
But Hail to the Thief is a great record in spite of its politics, which aren’t so much leftist as deliberately murky: “hypocrite opportunist / don’t infect me with your poison” is a typical lyric. Hail to the Thief isn’t a protest album, and that’s why it works so well. As with great Radiohead records past, such as Kid A, the music—restlessly, freakishly inventive—pushes politics far into the background.
For Radiohead, the music has almost always mattered most, so much so that the lyrics are chosen not for their meaning but for how they might sound. This passion for sonic textures has earned Radiohead fans from jazzmen (Brad Mehldau) to classical musicians (a young pianist named Christopher O’Riley painstakingly transcribed Radiohead material for the piano for an album called True Love Waits).
Hail to the Thief is overloaded with miraculous sounds: the almost visceral, sandpapery scratch of the beats on “The Gloaming”; the way “We Suck Young Blood” takes an amazing left turn from slow hand-claps and shimmering cymbals to jazz-inflected piano playing; the clipped, beat-box rhythms of “Backdrifts”; and the toggling percussion that overtakes “Sit Down. Stand Up.” Even a rock song called “There there” is magnificent: It’s the sort of swelling guitar epic the band failed at during its earliest incarnation as a standard alt-rock band.
Radiohead obsessives won’t hear the album this way: Like the devotees of eighties bands like the Smiths and the Cure, they’ll devour the lyric sheet for Hail to the Thief as though it were Hammurabi’s code. But for everyone else, Hail to the Thief will likely be listened to with the lights out and the speakers turned up loud. It’s not going to start the revolution—great art never does.
Pop musicians have much better luck addressing small injustices (leave the OIL and FEAR to Gore Vidal and Michael Moore), as proved by !!!’s Me and Giuliani Down by the Schoolyard, a protest song about New York’s absurd and oppressive cabaret law.
Though the band takes a series of dopey shots at the current and past mayors—they’re referred to as the “ties 2 tight dudes"—the music, a churning, mechanical funk that hints at both Afrobeat and James Brown without cribbing from either, is transporting. Let’s hope it carries New York City’s puritanism straight out of town.
New York could use a music festival that recognizes its groove geniuses from Justin VanDerVolgen (the producer of “Me and Giuliani” and Out Hud’s still-inspiring 2002 album S.T.R.E.E.T. D.A.D.) to DFA bands like the Rapture and LCD Soundsystem. Though it was put on by local promoters, Field Day Fest, with its predictable axis of alt-rock icons like Beck, Liz Phair, and Radiohead, could have happened anywhere.
Montreal has hosted a much more grassroots festival, Mutek, since 1999. Though its focus is on electronic music (“Mutek” stands for music and technology), the organizers of the fest have been remarkably good at booking promising young local talent like Akufen long before they gain recognition elsewhere.
The 2003 edition of Mutek, which stretched over five days at the end of May and the beginning of June, should herald the arrival of at least one artist: a Berlin-based producer named T. Raumschmiere who makes guttural techno that sounds something like a monster truck rolling through a rave. T. Raumschmiere has a live show equally as raucous as his music (he climbs atop his bank of equipment and shakes it violently, as if that were the only way to summon its most aggressive sounds). The program notes for Mutek compared him to Iggy Pop, but T. Raumschmiere isn’t so theatrical or acrobatic: He’s more like a teenager throwing the tantrum of his life.