Radiohead's sixth album opens with the amplified thump of a cable being rammed into the jack of an electric guitar, followed immediately by a barely audible voice noting ''That's a nice way to start.'' Could there be a more perfect kickoff for a record that supposedly heralds Radiohead's return to old-fashioned rock? Except the disc does no such thing. The band has described Hail to the Thief as a throwback to the guitars-and-songs format of 1995's ''The Bends,'' but a back-to-back listen of the two CDs renders that notion absurd. ''The Bends'' captures an enormously talented alt-pop quartet playing traditional songs with traditional instruments. Despite a stronger emphasis on guitars and acoustic drums, ''Thief'' (out June 10) sounds -- on the surface, at least -- pretty similar to Radiohead's last two albums, ''Kid A'' (2000) and ''Amnesiac'' (2001). Back are the skittering digital blips (''Backdrifts'' and ''Sit Down. Stand Up,'' for instance); the extended, slow-moving song structures (''We Suck Young Blood'' and the adjacent ''The Gloaming'' meander tunelessly for nearly nine combined minutes); and ear-tweaking studio tricks cooked up by the band and longtime producer Nigel Godrich (at one point, it actually sounds like somebody's shooting off a cheesy sci-fi laser gun).
But while references to ''The Bends'' are misleading, the band does seem to have recaptured some of the spirit of that era. Maybe what they're trying to express is that they're finally feeling comfortable just being Radiohead again, allowing more focus on writing songs -- icily elegant compositions that move and build on themselves and carry you along with them, not just out-there textures and effects. A lot of credit goes to frontman Thom Yorke, whose coolly serpentine voice is once again front and center, giving ''Thief'' an emotional and melodic anchor absent from recent albums. ''Where I End and You Begin,'' for example, features a syncopated guitar-and-drum groove and spacey keyboard washes, but Yorke's sweet, clear melody keeps the tune grounded. First single ''There There'' boasts the sort of gorgeous, gliding Yorke vocal seldom heard since the bridge on ''Paranoid Android.'' And ''Scatterbrain'' is as simple, bare, and affectively graceful as Radiohead get, with Yorke crooning plaintively over bass, fingerpicked guitar, and a rim-shot drumbeat.
The album was recorded quickly, assembled in a fraction of the time it took to concoct the self-consciously arty ''Kid A'' and ''Amnesiac.'' The willful inaccessibility of those hit-and-miss records felt like something of an attempt to deflate impossible-to-live-up-to expectations following the colossal success of ''OK Computer.'' (Hey, if people didn't like it, well, they just didn't get it.) And if that meant making weird music took precedence over making great music, then so be it.
''Thief'' also has plenty of weird, but there's considerably more great. Like all Radiohead albums, it's a slow grower, a densely packed collection of rapidly mutating sounds and surfaces that takes a while to comprehend. Though it drags a bit halfway through, the record starts strong and finishes even stronger. Opener ''2 + 2 = 5'' begins with a simple vocal line, kicks into a surging guitar chorus, and eventually spirals seamlessly into the manic electronics of the next track, ''Sit Down. Stand Up.'' Later on, ''A Punchup at a Wedding'' showcases a killer bass groove, and ''Myxomatosis'' is a thrilling prog-funk nightmare that spins an obscure rabbit disease into what appears to be an elaborate metaphor for pop star alienation.
But the real highlight is the closer, ''A Wolf at the Door,'' a soaring paranoid fantasy that captures Radiohead at their spookiest and most beautiful (and somehow makes the slapstick image of a custard in the face seem truly terrifying). Any time the final track on a band's latest album is this good, how can the group not be headed down the right path? Here's to the future, then.