Rhythm & Views


Radiohead long ago reached that stage in band development that can be known as the Crap Stage: They could crap on a piece of plastic and put it in a jewel case, and people would still buy it. But the term "Crap Stage" is wonderfully misleading; when a band reaches the Crap Stage, chances are, they're releasing records that are not crap at all.

In order to get to the Crap Stage, you have to be good. Platinum good. Rocket-science good. Beatles good. You have to have released record after jaw-dropping record; you have to be pricklingly original; and you probably have legions of copycat bands stealing your hairstyles and accents. And in order to get past the Crap Stage, to--let's call it the Postcrap Stage (I'd like to get the "crap" out of it, but I can only coin one term per CD review; it's an exhausting task)--you have to really turn the tables.

With Hail to the Thief, Radiohead is officially Postcrap. Because it's not just a record. Ever since OK Computer, Radiohead has no longer just been a band. Hail to the Thief, like OK Computer, Kid A, and Amnesiac before it, is a multimedia work of conceptual art; Radiohead is an artistic collaborative. Heck, it may even be a movement; with kids these days, you just never know.

Part of the intellectual joy of a Radiohead record is trying to read it; like a great work of literature, the notes and sounds have layers of meaning that are ambiguous. So to offer my analysis of Hail to the Thief would be cheating listeners of half the fun. To put it another way, I have only a vague idea what this record's getting at. My ideas are not fully formed, and most have to do with the brightly colored interpretive Americana of the cover art.

You can just listen to the record, and that would be enough, but since Radiohead is so completely Postcrap, the record does not just stop at this music. Nor does it stop at the cover art, or the song titles, or even the parentheticals suffixed to each song title. There's this little thing called the Internet, and you can do some cool things with it, or so I've heard. And instead of just .com, .org, or .net URLs, these days you can get .biz or .tv. Which creates a perfect platform for Radiohead TV (www.radiohead.tv). Broadcast every hour on the hour are montages of short films made by Radiohead fans set mostly to Radiohead songs; they flow into each other, stretching and interpreting the songs in beautiful and innovative ways, the way music videos should be. You may catch a glimpse of Thom Yorke performing a song on an acoustic guitar (and it's freaky how good the song sounds, even though he messes up a couple times), and you may see some interviews.

And it doesn't end there; there are more versions of artistic interpretation aplenty. You can download loops of Radiohead songs and make your own songs, which you can then send to the band, and if they like your work, they'll put the songs online for others to download.

The cover art for Hail to the Thief is a series of maps or landscapes filled in with stylized signage in bold colors and familiar words like "Hamburger" and "Video" and "God" with a few "Quango"s and "Gargoyle"s and "We Can Wipe You Out"s thrown in to mix things up a bit. Some short Flash files on Radiohead's Web site take this concept and shift it around a bit; you get signs in white chalk on a black background, and little black rectangles traveling through a Mondrian maze. "A-ha!" you say. It's all starting to make a bit more sense, this postmodern Postcrap music of epic guitar and electronic driven melody, classic in its simplistic structure but entirely Radiohead in its mood and tone.

In this information age of mutable data, Radiohead made a record that is constantly in a state of flux, with all kinds of other media tapping in to the central song cardiovascular cavity and pumping out vital fluids elsewhere, where they can be oxygenated and redefined.

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