Oxford, England — On the Radiohead Web site, guitarist Jonny Greenwood says of the band's gripping new album, "Hail to the Thief": "We're summing up what it's like to be around in 2003."
"Does he?" says Thom Yorke, the group's frontman, clutching his head in mock horror. "Oh, don't say that, Jonny!"
Although Yorke balks at sonorous statements of intent, "Hail to the Thief" does have bold ambitions. Yorke tranquilly sips morning coffee at a favorite cafe in his history-drenched hometown and recalls the dark, alarming ideas and emotions that inspired the band's sixth album.
There were: The war in Afghanistan. The beauty of the English countryside. A Penderecki cello concerto. A baby boy called Noah. The future of democracy. And, as they say, more.
In fall 2001, Radiohead finished its tours promoting "Kid A" and "Amnesiac" -- the difficult and rather obscure albums released in quick succession as belated follow-ups to the triumph of tough and intelligent rock that was 1997's "OK Computer."
Yorke went home to his girlfriend, Rachel (who was studying Dante for a doctorate), and their then-8-month-old son, Noah, and found a whole world of fresh personal, political and artistic awareness.
"It was a quiet period," he says. "I was getting to know my little boy. But I'd also go for two- or three-hour walks in the country." (They live outside Oxford.) "I took a radio, so I was listening to BBC News reports of the war in Afghanistan.
"This beautiful scenery around me, some lunatic from the Bush administration talking in my ear. Out in the middle of nowhere, the media is really amplified -- it's like being permanently on drugs. I guess I was worrying about what's going to be there when I'm gone and Noah is left.
"Then I'd play this Penderecki tape in the car. It makes 'The Shining' soundtrack sound mild. An orchestra like a wall of amplifiers feeding back with this fragile cello in the middle. It fuses everything going on in your head, all that rattling debris."
He grins across the table, wondering how this roiling brew of perceptions is going down.
"Maybe I should resist saying all this. It can sound like Chicken Licken saying the sky's falling in. Everyone goes, 'Aha! He's on his doom trip again!' But I did have this sense of foreboding, the feeling that we are entering an age of intolerance and fear where the power to express ourselves in a democracy and have our voices heard is being denied us."
Early last year, the band reconvened. Happily, it found that the ruffled egos and separate recording sessions that had characterized the recording of "Kid A" and "Amnesiac" had all passed. The members wrote and rehearsed together. Nobody complained when Yorke had such difficulty finishing the words that, on a low-key tour of Spain and Portugal last summer, he was balling up rejected lyric sheets and lobbing them into the crowd at the end of every song. "I wasn't worried -- it was great not taking it seriously," Yorke says.
In September, they broke a longtime habit and came to Los Angeles to record, instead of Europe. Making parody Englishmen of themselves, they drove daily to Ocean Way studios in Hollywood in a fleet of Minis emblazoned with Union Jacks. They toiled for two weeks, most of the album finished at a track a day.
"It's the way we work best," Yorke is now convinced. "It was as if we'd been in hiding and now we've come out in the open again. Direct music, quick, not thinking about it too much, just letting things happen. Staying in Los Angeles was like landing on Mars for us. It had a massive effect on the record, maybe because it was so out of context with what the songs are about. So it sounded energetic and sparkly."
Sparkly gloom. It makes some kind of sense when you listen to "Hail to the Thief's" depth of feeling, diverse tones, original noises, startling melodies and high, clear vocals. And then there are those hard-won lyrics.
Anger and optimism
Apart from the title's bad old joke on the 2000 presidential election, the politics are nonspecific yet potent. The overweening power of globalized money and military might sneers through the viciousness of "We Suck Young Blood" and "Sit Down. Stand Up" ("We can wipe you out / Anytime. Anytime"), while "Myxomatosis" reflects on Yorke's dispiriting experiences as a spokesman for Jubilee 2000's Drop the Debt campaign, which urged developed countries to forgive Third World debt.
"To me this was a very simple thing, a humanitarian issue," he says. "But it was inconvenient to the political establishment. You end up feeling, 'OK, I must have some sort of disease' " -- hence myxomatosis (it's a killer of Britain's wild rabbits). "I suppose I was the angry young man. I put people's backs up even before I start talking to them."
No career in diplomacy after all, he cheerfully acknowledges.
Even so, just before he exits the cafe for London and tour rehearsals, Yorke insists that, since Radiohead finished recording the album, he's regained his optimism.