Radiohead’s ‘Hail to the Thief’ turns 15

by Kathryn Garcia

Radiohead’s ‘Hail to the Thief’ turns 15

Hail to the Thief

Ocean Way Recording / Canned Applause · June 2003

15 years after politically charged masterpiece Hail to the Thief was released, Radiohead’s social commentary has never been more relevant. The paranoia, cynicism, and hopelessness that tied the album to the Bush administration’s perniciousness seem like small fry compared to the ever-looming doomsday of the current Trump administration. While Radiohead albums are always meticulously perfected from a musical standpoint, Hail to the Thief stands out as the most intentionally outspoken about the United States and U.K.’s politics.

‘2+2=5,’ a phrase popularized by George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984,is a mantra that epitomizes those in power dictating what constitutes objective truth. As the first song on Hail to the Thief, Radiohead sets the precedent for living out Orwell’s nightmare. The people no longer have any power as “It’s the Devil’s way now / There is no way out” because the masses have not been “payin’ attention.” The song begins slowly with Yorke’s calm vocals paired with a smooth guitar melody and a quick tempo backtrack that escalates into a musical explosion of harsh electric guitar, drums, and yelling to “hail to the thief”— mirroring how political change started slowly and is now seemingly filled with endless chaos.

Immediately following the established paradigm of ‘2+2=5,’ the listener is commanded to “Walk into the jaws of hell” where they must continuously “Sit down, stand up.” And, as the current president also reminds us with his frequent tweets boasting the United State’s nuclear capabilities, Yorke sings, “We can wipe you out anytime.”

‘Sail to the Moon,’ filled with brooding piano and a slower tempo than the chaos of ‘2+2=5’ and ‘Sit Down, Stand Up,’ sheds a glimmer of hope. Defeated, having “spoke to soon,” Yorke sings that “Maybe you’ll be president / But know right from wrong.”

In ‘Go to Sleep,’ the apathy of the masses has disastrous consequences. It is clear through Yorke’s sarcastic tone when he sings “We don’t really want a monster taking over,” people do not do what it really takes to stop the monster as they all “go to sleep.”

‘Backdrifts’ immediately snaps back to the demoralized view in which our society has backtracked. As stated by Yorke in the official Hail to the Thief interview, “It is about the slide backwards that is happening everywhere you look. There was a time when everybody sort of felt like maybe the world was progressing and maybe we were getting better, sort of understanding other people, you know, that there was a high level of tolerance and compassion and so on. And then someone literally flicked a switch and the light went on and everybody just scurried for the dark.” In the 15 years in between the release of the song, progress seemed to be regained, but has again taken even further steps backwards with the current administration, as institutionalized racism and human rights violations run rampant throughout our country.

Halfway through the album, ‘The Gloaming,’ with unsettling electronic backtracks recorded in the Kid-A sessions, is the official signifier that “Your alarm bells / they should be ringing” as the “genie let out of the bottle / It is now the witching hour,” with the Afghan War setting the tone of darkness and panic which has continued to loom to this day. Perhaps the most eerie song on the album, ‘The Gloaming’ isn’t the type of blaring warning heard on Kid A’s ‘Idioteque’ that yells to save “women and children first,” but manifests as the subtly traumatic feeling when your mind perceives everything in slow motion as the world slowly darkens.

In the energized and punchy ‘Myxomatosis,’ a vicious disease intentionally given to control the rabbit population of Australia in the mid 20th century transforms into a metaphor for the mass control the government has over its citizens. Even those who speak out have their words “edited, fucked up / Strangled, beaten up,” mirroring the way in which Trump twists words to create a facade of the truth being “fake news.”

The album’s last song, ‘A Wolf at the Door,’ perfectly encapsulates the complete shitshow that the world continues to manifest. The flawless ending to the album explicitly narrates the paranoia that becomes second nature as a response to a merciless, corrupt government that “Knives you in the neck / Kicks you in the teeth.”

Ultimately, though, the thief to whom the nation is hailing has transformed 15 years later into a much bigger, badder, wolf who is no longer simply kept at the door. Instead, he’s ruling our nation.

Listen to Hail to the Thief here: