Nobody really seems to have much to say about Hail to the Thief. Fans, critics, even the band themselves. It is not so much a forgotten album (yet), but it is safe to assume that if one were to rank Radiohead albums, it would be towards the bottom... most fans put it one above Pablo Honey. Hail just doesn't merit discussion the way other Radiohead albums did before it (and have since, but we'll get to that later).
Despite its immediate commercial success, Hail lacks staying power. Perhaps it is due to the relative lack of effort the band put into making the album. After the brutally divisive Kid A/Amnesiac sessions, the band wanted to get in and out of the studio as quickly as possible. To call the approach to recording Hail "relaxed" is a bit generous... "sloppy" is probably a better word. While some of Hail's individual moments are quite impressive - the layered climax of "There There", the melancholy chugging of "Where I End and You Begin" - the album, as a whole, suffers from the lack of exactness. Hail was supposed to deliver a message - in fact, it might be Radiohead's most sanctimonious album. Loaded with political metaphors (the title a play on "Hail to the Chief", the march music associated with the office of the President of the US), Hail was meant to impart similar lessons of earlier albums, this time at a more sociopolitical angle: society, absorbed in post-9/11 fear culture, is moving towards the dark ages, into "the gloaming" (which is this album's parenthetical alternative title.) The album cover is a collection of buzzwords that Thom picked up while listening to American radio, arranged as a roadmap of Los Angeles - the implications of this imagery are powerful, but the music does not execute what the imagery promises. Because the album lacks musical cohesion, it does not play well as a whole, and so the messages fall apart, a scattering of disjointed ideas.
While Hail could have benefited from a tighter approach to recording, its weakness as an album owes as much to its lack of innovation (on a relative scale - anything seems pedestrian when you compare it to Kid A). Whereas OK Computer opened the gates to soaring instrumentation, and Kid A brought electronic influences into the fold, Hail operates within the musical frameworks that the band had already established. Much of the music is repackaged. The hollow percussion of "There There", while striking, is a poorly disguised rehash OK Computer's "Climbing Up the Walls" (it's still an amazing song, but don't miss the point). "The Gloaming", filled with fuzzy and erratic blips, sounds like something off of Amnesiac. A similar description befalls "Backdrifts" and "Sit Down Stand Up". Much of the rest of the album is inoculated, unrefined, lazy. "We Suck Young Blood" could have been a much more powerful track - messy hand claps marking the rhythm of a funeral procession, drooping piano that kicks into gear with a chaotic swagger - but Thom's vocals are anemic (not in the way that would befit the track) and the songs idles in its own morbidity for too long. It is this idling, this lack of consistency from track to track, that causes the album to feel patched and directionless, and thus so many otherwise powerful images and themes - vicious predation, rainstorms, animalism, and of course apocalypse - are lost. Interestingly, one of the only moments on Hail that is truly separate from Radiohead's prior work is its closing track, "A Wolf At the Door" - stringy, lucid, and relaxed despite its disturbingly violent imagery, it's actually a decent portent of what is to come four years later on In Rainbows.
Hail had goals
, but its poor structure due to lack of effort leaves it to fall short of those goals. The band members themselves (particularly Thom, who at this point in the band's chronology had become Mother Russia to the other members' status as satellite nations) have admitted that they are disappointed with Hail. The frustrating thing is that there are some brilliant moments that show what the rest of the album could have been... but can we rightfully ask for more? Can we really expect the band to tiptoe back to the very ledge they clung to on Kid A? Regardless of what we demand of Radiohead, it's important to remember that if we are to be disappointed, it should be not with what Hail is, but with what it could have (and should have) been.
Looking forward to In Rainbows the question is: did Hail's relative failure cause the band to reconsider their approach? Did it push them back to the painstaking recording process of Kid A? Did they labor over every detail of their next album? Absolutely not. In fact, In Rainbows is their most relaxed album to date. That they were still unwilling to get back to the atom-by-atom approach after Hail failed to be what they envisioned just speaks to how intense the Kid A/Amnesiac sessions must have been.