Those Radiohead fans hankering after the band's more mainstream indie-rock style will be heartened by the first sound they hear on Hail To The Thief, which is the click and hum of Jonny Greenwood plugging his guitar into an amplifier. Does this, they'll wonder hopefully, prefigure a return to the prog-rock panache of OK Computer, after the wayward experimentalism of Kid A and Amnesiac?
Well, yes and no. There's undoubtedly more guitar on the new album, and the tracks may slip more readily into standard "song" format, but the album as a whole is still extensively informed by the musical developments of its immediate predecessors, with songs underscored by moody synth pads and bristling with briars of spiky electronic noise. Several tracks feature ticking drum programmes: "Sit Down, Stand Up" even builds to a furious drum'n'bass climax, while the light, skittering percussion bed of the lovely "Backdrifts", combined as it is with the wheedling timbre of Thom Yorke's vocal, strongly recalls the Damo Suzuki-era Can of Future Days and Ege Bamyasi.
The best tracks are those which most skilfully harness the band's avant-garde tendencies to their rock drive, such as "Where I End and You Begin", a febrile, itchy shuffle whose tetchy chording and propulsive bass are placated by lowing electronic tones and glistening high harmonies, as of a choir of pedal steel guitars. Or "Go to Sleep", where a perverse time-signature and forceful rhythm guitar busy themselves behind Yorke's intonation of manipulated clichés, their meaning as slippery as the politicians who usually employ them. As on several tracks, the song's lyric reads as if compiled from various disparate sources, striking the usual "cut-up" aesthetic trade-off between meaning and intrigue.
The matters which continue to exercise Thom Yorke's imagination are paranoia, duplicity, deceit and alienation, in varying proportions. "Where I End and You Begin" is a typical Radiohead alienation anthem, while the single "There There" muses uncertainly about uncertainty. It's politicians, though, that bear the brunt of Yorke's animus, their duplicity and warmongering condemned in "A Punchup at a Wedding" and "The Gloaming". Only on "We Suck Young Blood", is the setting as depressing as the subject-matter, with funereal piano chords and chain-gang handclap conveying the dismal vampirism personified in Yorke's crooned inquiries - "Are you torn at the seams?/Would you do anything?/ Our veins are thin/ Our rivers poisoned/ We want the sweet meats/ We want the young blood". I recommend it be piped into the Big Brother house as part of the inmates' "media training".