Hail to _Hail to the Thief_

When they're on their game, Radiohead does exactly one thing better than any other band working today. They understand perfectly how to set increase musical beauty by surrounding it with harshness. When the emotional payoff of a top-tier Radiohead song comes, it's overwhelming, because it feels earned.

The first two albums show off this talent only sporadically; the space-age moans and squeals that accompany the plaintive meolody of "Bullet Proof" is probably the best example. The storm of guitar noise that fills "Blow Out" contains hints of what was (then) still to come. "Sulk" has a killer chorus, but it doesn't entirely stand out; the song as a whole is still conventional.

OK Computer, although as a whole a work mostly of beauty, was when Radiohead really started working the contrasts. The sudden turn in "Paranoid Android" from guitar rage to multi-part vocal harmony (and back) makes for an unlikely single, but there is no denying the impact. "Exit Music (For a Film)" sets a relatively straightforward song against an increasingly frentic fuzzed-out wail.

But even more effective is the song sequencing: after the climactic let's-throw-everything-in conclusion of "Climbing up the Walls," the soothing tones of "No Surprises" are all the more striking. In some ways, the entire album is just build-up to "The Tourist," one of the most well-chosen last songs ever . . . and the entire song is just a lead-up to the single triangle ding with which it ends.

Kid A took these tricks and did them a million times better. It's not just that the songs are standard pop songs decked out with noise and odd instrumentation. They're not. They are, to a one, songs that contain a single, rendingly beautiful element. Everything else is just context, setting--a way of bringing out the hidden richness of the core element.

"Everything in its Right Place" is about that opening organ chord and the circling progression it introduces; "How to Disappear Completely" is about the moment, five minutes in, when the descending minor third that has haunted the song finally resolves. "Idioteque" and "Morning Bell" are studies in rhythm; "Motion Picture Sountrack" is about the moment silence after the chorus and before the harp enters. The album is full of seeming hostile soundscapes that work, precisely because they are so carefully shaped around an ephemeral core.

Amnesiac was more of the same, only not so coherent as an album and with some glum failures in the mix. The "Morning Bell" remix and "Pull/Pulk Revolving Doors" were just un-called for. Other songs on the album mix foul and fair to better effect: The opening of "I Might Be Wrong" and the ending of "Dollars and Cents" are fine examples of Radiohead's fragile flowers. And, to be fair, "Pyramid Song" and "You and Whose Army" more or less defined a a new musical genre. The Radiohead ballad is a haunting slow song, digitally-pinched voice over circling chords, driting through the outer reaches of some bleak galaxy.

Which brings us to Hail to the Thief. First, the bad news for rock critics: it's no OK Computer. And second, the bad news for me: it's no Kid A, either. But third, the good news for everyone is that although it's squarely in the Amnesiac mold: a collection of songs (as opposed to a through-composed album) with some deliberately "tough" elements, it's much, much, better than Amnesiac.

Part of it is that Hail to the Thief has one of everything good from Amnesiac. "I Will" is "You and Whose Army"'s healthier cousin; "Sail to the Moon" is "Pyramid Song" with an even spookier melody. "There There" has the driving energy of "I Might Be Wrong," and more. And "2+2=5," "Sit Down, Stand Up," and "Scatterbrain," though they echo "Dollars and Cents," also reach back to "OK Computer" and "Kid A:" taken together they are a kind of compressed version of those albums, as filtered through Radiohead's more recent esthetic.

But thre real prize here is that, more than once, they completely nail that diamond-in-the-rough groove they do better than anyone else out there. "Where I End and You Begin" is as terrifying as a rock song can be: the music swallows the vocal line, until all that is left is a murmured "I will eat you alive." "A Punch-Up at a Wedding" never settles down harmonically, but has an infectious, shuffling, gait.

And then there's "A Wolf at the Door," which starts off unpromising as Thom Yorke chants, I-am-the-modern-day-Walrus fashion, gets more and more intense, until it breaks out with the most incredibly perfect chorus, one that completely justifies everything that's come before. Suddenly you understand why Thom has been chanting and you sit there nervously during the bridge, scared of the verse that waits on the other side. For this one song alone, I would forgive them almost anything.

All the same, it's good that they don't have anything to apologize for with this album.