About a month ago, in intervals roughly corresponding to time zones, Radiohead fans across the world shrieked with delight. We reacted to emails, phone calls, instant messages, and conversations that contained, in some form or another, a link to a website that was hosting leaked, un-mastered MP3s of the British rock band’s next album, Hail to the Thief. Not scheduled for release until June, the album has been the object of much speculation by obsessed fans who have long had the lyrics and track list. The band members have each issued their own objections to the album’s unplanned and unauthorized early release, but there was something utterly appropriate about its electronic debut.
Hail to the Thief opens with a question: “Are you such a dreamer to put the world to rights?” The track, entitled “2 + 2 = 5,” is a declaration of a basic desire to put the world in order. Radiohead, narrowly pegged by critics as political, is confronting this image head on. “I’ll stay home forever / where two and two always makes a five.” Things are confusing and they like it that way. The illusion is that things should ever make sense.
Radiohead has grown as a band through technological and communications revolutions that have reshaped how audiences understand music. Their chaotic world is frightening, confusing, and irrational:
“It’s the devil’s way now / there is no way out /
you can scream and you can shout /
it’s too late now.”
The disorder struggles, however, against a gridded, repetitive soundscape of samples and commands; life becomes a reconstituted pattern. Track two on Hail to the Thief, “Sit Down. Stand Up,” plays with many of the ideas first presented on OK Computer (1997) that highlighted the differences between minds and machines. In this song, a repeating chant, “sit down / stand up” cycles constantly in the background. In simultaneous motion, oppressively imperative lyrics like “walk into the jaws of hell” and “we can wipe you out anytime” creep out of singer Thom Yorke’s throat. The first two-thirds of the song sound like input into a computer program. Its output is the phrase “the rain drops” repeated 46 times—a rhythmic reflection of nature’s disregard for human behavior.
The “devil’s way” of the first track and the deluge described in the second give way to a third song, “Sail to the Moon,” a deliberately grammatical mirror of the album’s title. This hopeful track marks the first time the band has used piano in five years, having fully embraced electronic sounds on Kid A (2000). Thief-hailing, an expression of the band’s complete loss of faith in Western leadership, changes to moon-sailing, in which they suggest that “maybe you’ll / be president / but know right from wrong / or in the flood / you’ll build an Ark.” It’s the hope of something changing or someone rising up. But ultimately, this dream seems cosmic in scope and as distant as the moon, or even as remote as the Old Testament.
The disconnected images that cycle through the listener’s mind are a reflection of how Radiohead views the world. How else could they speak to an audience living in a stormy world where “yesterday’s headlines blown by the wind / yesterday’s people end up scatterbrain” (“Scatterbrain”)? This “force ten gale” is the omnipresent power that rips through the album, a manifestation of the 46 raindrops heard falling 30 minutes earlier. It acts in a space the listener occupies, “birds thrown around, bullets for hail / the roof is pulling off by its fingernails,” a painful reminder of a disruptive existence.
The first single from Hail to the Thief, released in the U.K. on April 22, was “There There.” What sounds like a suggestion of comfort is in fact a song entirely about the illusion of perception: “Broken branches trip me as I speak / just cause you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there.” We are inherently prone to misinterpreting our world; indeed, “we are accidents waiting / waiting to happen.”
Concerned with communication on all levels, the band has cultivated, and is the product of, an intense relationship with popular culture. Even the band’s name suggests that our minds resemble a dying and passive medium. On the bottom of the 18th page of OK Computer’s 22-page album booklet, the band requests that all correspondence be sent by W.A.S.T.E., a direct sample from Thomas Pynchon’s postmodern novella The Crying of Lot 49. W.A.S.T.E. was a secret communications system discovered by reality-doubting protagonist Oedipa Maas. In its real life manifestation, W.A.S.T.E. is the official communications site for Radiohead fans. Before this, from 1992 to 1998, W.A.S.T.E. was their private mailing list for fans, its own subset of communication. In the second letter the band ever sent to fans, they wrote:
1993 marks the centenary of the first-ever telephone conversation and also the mail-out of our first newsletter—well, hasn’t communication come a long way in the past hundred years. O.K., so this sheet may not look like much yet, but that first conversation was hardly a crystal-clear satellite link-up, and just look at the impact it had on civilization. Anyway, we’re doing it ourselves and we don’t even reverse the charges.
Radiohead matters because they are in constant dialogue with the world we live in. They are the sound made when an entire culture throws their hands up in distress and shouts, “Things are too complex—no answer is adequate.” Each of their albums is, on some level, an admission of defeat. They do not purport to provide answers, or suggestions for living. Instead, they are a beautiful expression of technologically charged confusion.
SAM CARTER is a writer studying Media Ecology at New York University.