Radiohead’s ‘Burn the Witch’: The Perfect Musical Comeback
It’s been five years since Radiohead released new music (save for that leaked Bond theme). “Burn the Witch,” is dark, moody, and strange. It’s everything you love about Radiohead.
After Radiohead spent the bulk of Sunday learning how to disappear completely off social media (and subjecting itself to a litany of story ledes just like that one—look, everyone, I listened to Kid A, too!), the band returned late Monday with a mysterious animated video of a bird.
That—along with the “Burn the Witch” leaflets that were sent out to fans earlier in the weekend—finally all came together to make a little bit of sense (this is Radiohead, “make sense” is relative) with the single and music video release of “Burn the Witch,” the band’s first original track since leaking its scrapped Spectre Bond theme song over the winter.
The song is more Radiohead-y—which is to say, arguably better—than anything on King of Limbs. (My apologies to “Lotus Flower” fans.)
The identity crisis quirk that defined that album, and especially that song, seems to have modulated itself. “Burn the Witch” retreats to the sort of ambient orchestral swells and Thom Yorke cooing—creating that alternately soothing and deeply unsettling effect—that you think of when you think of a Radiohead track.
As the first new official single since 2011’s King of Limbs, The Guardian’s Michael Hann sums up the song perfectly in his review, which calls it “the kind of return the world might have hoped for.” It’s a return that had longtime fans operating in a state of, to quote “Burn the Witch,” “a low-flying panic attack,” especially after a representative from the band’s management firm teased that the new album that the song is promoting will sound “like nothing you’ve ever heard.”
That “Burn the Witch” fits so squarely in Radiohead’s oeuvre makes that claim a bit confusing.
Is he referring to the Verve-esque string section that gives the song its tense rhythmic drive? Or the ominous menacing that stalks the song once the drumbeat kicks in? Truthfully, though composed with more precision and ambition than what we’ve settled for on the radio these days, “Burn the Witch” is as perfectly pitched to set fire to the festival stages and music halls Radiohead is set to tour this summer as any of its most recognizable hits.
The song’s sense of dread is, odd as it might be to say, almost refreshing.
Today’s music is defined by emotional clarity and explosive confidence—strut to Beyoncé, groove to Drake, cry to Adele, feel whatever Kanye commands you to feel. The darker arrangement of “Burn the Witch” alone is a pointed reminder that anxiety-inducing music is just as necessary, too. Moodiness has left music. Radiohead is bringing the feeling back.
More pointed, however, are the song’s lyrics, which could be interpreted as an indictment of our culture of surveillance and our willingness to participate in it. That could also explain the band’s recent erasure of its social media presence, often the catalyst for that very surveillance.
The song could also be read as an indictment of what public discourse has become.
Real talk—the moodiness, the anxiety, the dread that the song telegraphs—has become forbidden. Say one wrong thing, especially on a public forum like social media, and you’re the subject of the witch hunt. In our culture of outrage and our increasing refusal to offer the benefit of the doubt, “Burn the Witch” is not just unfathomable hysterics anymore. It’s a knee-jerk reaction.
Yorke sings: “Loose talk around tables /Abandon all reason / Avoid all eye contact / Do not react / Shoot the messenger / This is a low-flying panic attack.” It resonates universally with our reactionary society, almost as much as the song’s early advice does: “Stay in the shadows / Cheer the gallows / This is a round-up.”
Of course, this is Radiohead, and you can’t separate the song from the video. The video is a clever mix of cheeky and disturbing, a Claymation depiction of an idyllic Puritanical New England town in the midst of a witch hunt.
The cheeriness of the animation and the staging calls on the whimsical earnestness of the likes of Santa Claus Is Coming to Town and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which makes its horrifying narrative—various townspeople are accused of various sins and paraded to gallows and other punishments—all the more disturbing.
The video, which was directed by Chris Hopewell, climaxes when a giant wooden statue is erected Wicker Man-style and, in a twist, its town’s official, the one who had been doing the condemning on this witch hunt, who is trapped in the statue and burned in effigy.
Are we supposed to read some sort of “fight the power” message into this? When we see that animated bird again, chirping carefree at the end of the video, are we supposed to surmise that happy endings come when those who are monitoring us are hunted down? There’s no definitive answer—and maybe that’s the point.
The whole thing is classic Radiohead: the song, the video, and even the release and odd marketing campaign.
As we remember the revolutionary way Prince took control of and experimented with the ownership and dissemination of his music and marvel at Beyoncé’s manipulation of the media in a time defined by the “surprise” release, it’s worth noting Radiohead’s aggressive embrace of the unconventional release.
There was the In Rainbows pay-what-you-want model of downloading. The King of Limbs was released as a special newspaper edition, which included “two clear 10in vinyl records in a purpose-built record sleeve, many large sheets of artwork, 625 tiny pieces of artwork and a full-colour piece of oxo-degradable plastic to hold it all together.” Sure. Why not.
Removing its social media presence is a sort of reverse-psychology way to drum up anticipation for a new song. And it worked, judging by the reaction to “Burn the Witch” on Tuesday. A surprise release of the new album, Radiohead’s ninth, is imminent. Combined, the unusual marketing and any-day-now album drop hints at both the band’s resistance to and embrace of today’s music industry norms.
Again, classic Radiohead.