Hail to the Thief: External Forces
My post last week about Demon Days made much out of my view that the album focuses mainly on the internal anxieties and conflicts produced by external conflicts. Damon Albarn and company were more interested in the unique rhythms of people who are involved in perpetual war. I would attest that Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief, though it also touches on those aspects of anxiety, is more concerned with naming and confronting the enemies.
The longest and most eclectic album Radiohead has released, Hail to the Thief was rumoured before its release to be a “return to rock” record for the band. While much of this emerged from the pining of old-school fans of the band who wanted Jonny Greenwood to put away the Ondes Martenot and play guitar again, there is a grain of truth in this statement. After the cold digital Krautrock of Kid A completely reoriented the band from rock toward electronics and the hazy, fragmentary Amnesiac solidified their experimental streak, Hail to the Thief feels like a career recap in many ways. Ranging from almost straight-ahead U2-style arena rock to tender balladry to frenzied guitar noise to sparely arranged apocalyptic rants, the album does not hold together as a unified statement but has a great deal to offer in terms of dread and worry.
I have considerably less to say about this album than I did about Demon Days. I’ve had a much longer relationship with this record than Gorillaz, and much of last week’s article was exploratory more than definitive. That said, there is one main aspects of Hail to the Thief that I want to explore: naming the enemy.
Naming the Enemy: “A Wolf at the Door”
Before talking about the final and best track on the album, I want to open with a few remarks on how Thom Yorke’s songwriting, as obtuse as it is, is primarily concerned with finding external sources for internal stress and giving them a face.
First, an astute listener will notice that several of the songs here are sung from the perspective of nameless antagonists. The very beginning of the first song, the hard-rocking “2+2=5,” after a few seconds of scene-setting introduction, says this:
Are you such a dreamer
To put the world to rights
I’ll stay home forever
And two and two always makes a five
This is a question addressed to some idealistic person, never named nor properly defined. It could be that the narrator is addressing himself (assuming gender based on the gender of the songwriter). Antagonistic narrators also appear in “Sit Down, Stand Up,” and “We Suck Young Blood.” Assuming that much of the content on the album is political–an inevitable conclusion, I believe–we can conclude that Thom Yorke is putting on these distasteful personae as a way of confronting the listener with their own complicity in the terrible happenings they see. While this might seem to contradict my theory about the album’s focus on external foes, I believe that the way these personae operate allows the listener to separate him or herself from these narrators. The song, after all, is coming from outside of them. While these personae might present more complicated internal conflicts for the artist, the way they function for the listener is still largely to implicate an outside influence, a hand on their ankle dragging them down.
Turning now to “The Wolf at the Door,” we see the various indistinct threats Radiohead has interrogated over the course of the album–the vampires, the imperial tyrant, the disease of madness, the “they” that suck you down in “The Gloaming”–to coalesce into a single, potent metaphor. Borrowed from an episode in the book of Genesis where Cain kills his brother Abel and is warned by the Lord God that sin is crouching at his door, ready to pounce. Read the chorus or refrain from the song:
I keep the wolf from the door
But he calls me up
Calls me on the phone
Tells me all the ways that he’s gonna mess me up
Steal all my children
If I don’t pay the ransom
But I’ll never see them again
If I squeal to the cops
I interpret this as a personification and externalization of an inwardly-felt threat. The wolf here is there, crouching at the door. He can be fought back but not beaten, is insistently belligerent and has a special interest in menacing the weakest in society. Authorities are impotent to defeat him. This helplessness is further reinforced by the words that swirl around this refrain. For instance:
Take it with a pinch of salt
Take it to the taxman
Let me back let me back
I promise to be good
Don’t look in the mirror
At the face you don’t recognize
Help me call the doctor
Put me inside
Put me inside
Put me inside
Put me inside
Put me inside
These words, coming to us via Thom Yorke’s uncharacteristically droning recitation, weave a dense set of familiar situations. Whatever is bothering the narrator of the song is clearly felt as oppressive, but his response is to recite banal clichés, turn away from his own face, and believe that he has gone mad, and is need of medical pacification. Later lines will make even clearer that the tensions bubbling with the distorted guitars in the background of this twisted beat poem are mostly related to economic power:
Investments and dealers investments and dealers
Cold wives and mistresses
Cold wives and sunday papers.
City boys in first class
Don’t know we’re born little
Someone else is gonna come and clean it up
Born and raised for the job
Someone else always does always pick it up
What we see in here is that the enemy is named–the eponymous wolf–but the narrator is still paralyzed by fear, unable to break out of the economic and political systems that define how he responds to the world. Scenes from a typical day, like the banal phrases from the earlier lines, mingle among denials and epiphanies in equal number. The result is a song that dances between despair and clear insight, what I would call Radiohead’s most lyrically astute song. Much of their work after Hail to the Thief has retreated from the front lines in the war on late capitalistic corporatism or however they would put it. Nevertheless, critics who want to label them ineffectual demagogues peddling guilt-cleansing music for rich people could point to the financial success of this album even as it delivers scathing critiques of Western culture’s alternately cynical and naive embrace of conformity.
What can we take away from this? I would say, in closing, that while this album has a more overtly revelatory/prophetic character, its focus on external enemies and almost mythic personifications makes it less effective at understanding personal anxiety in a society bent toward unending foreign wars. Demon Days has its own fair share of dance-related escapism and a similarly fabled and mythic ending, but I find that its embrace of a more total vision of humanity, its very incoherent eclecticism, makes it more meaningful in this way. This is not to compare their purely musical merits, and I might say more about that in the future. Nevertheless, I find both of these works compelling, and I hope that more people look back and see them as more than pop music milestones.