According to Radiohead vocalist Thom Yorke, the cover art of the new album, "Hail to the Thief," is a road map made up of blocks of words that "rang bells" in his head whenever he listened to commentary about 9/11 and its political aftermath. Radiohead has always invited as much interpretation as the listener is willing indulge in, but this time the themes are pretty clear.
"Hail to the Thief" is still not the "guitar album" that the band has supposedly promised its fans since "OK Computer" changed the way a whole generation listens to rock albums. Though less symphonic than "Kid A" or "Amnesiac," the songs still favor texture over structure, atmosphere over hooks. That atmosphere combines dread with playfulness, and is mostly produced by the arrangements and the sequencing. The first two cuts, "2+2="5"" and "Sit Down Stand Up," are essentially one song, the former presenting a precis of the album's themes ("It's the devil's way now/There is no way out") and the latter a demonstration of how those themes play in the real world ("Anytime, anywhere, we can wipe you out"). Accordingly, the music progresses from a dreamy, melancholy swoon to a manic, stuttery thunderstorm.
Even more than the last two albums, the power of "Hail to the Thief" is cumulative. The centerpiece single, "There There," uses crashing guitars to break down the door of what used to be called Side Two, where the images become painfully obvious (dead babies, bunkers, "pot calling the kettle black") and the music more beautiful than it has a right to be in the service of such images. "Someone else is gonna come and clean it up, someone always does," Yorke sings among the bell-like guitars and it's-a-new-day synthesizers in the finale, "A Wolf at the Door," a paranoid rant set to a lovely but hurried waltz. The road map to hell is drawn with selfish intentions.