Radiohead released a new song and video today. It's called "Burn the Witch," and if you look at your various incredibly well-curated social media timelines, you're sure to catch some hot takes flying around in cyberspace. Luckily, here at Noisey, we are literally paid for our opinions about music, so you know that they're 100 percent accurate and true. So to celebrate the return of England's National Band, we gathered writers from across VICE Media to get their immediate reactions to Thom Yorke's latest forward-thinking croon.
I’ll kick things off: This song is good.
Counterpoint: this sucks.
It would be cool of me to pretend I’m not ecstatic about a new Radiohead song, but as a Radiohead fan, it is very hard for me to be cool anyway. Fact is, “Burn the Witch” is shit hot. Those discordant strings have the creepy tension of Steve Reich soundtracking a Hitchcock murder scene, Thom Yorke’s voice sounds like a synth made from weeping ghosts, and you can’t put a price on a music video in 2016 that has a genuine idea at its core. As for the lyrics, I don’t know what they’re about, but they remind me of a teenage poem I wrote in scratched black fountain pen during the post-trauma of being dumped outside a bowling alley. Knowing Thom Yorke, they’re probably about society or Twitter or something. All that said, as fans have already pointed out, “Burn The Witch” isn’t a new song. It’s been teased at live shows since as far back as 2006, and then again in 2008. Which is probably why it doesn’t sound like the giant pioneering leap into the abyss we’re used to hearing from a new Radiohead record. It just sounds like a really great song, on which Thom Yorke has swallowed extremely hard and let Jonny Greenwood do way more than usual. Maybe that’s exciting enough for now.
It sounds like Coldplay on meth.
True: “Burn the Witch” sounds like a more hellish “Viva La Vida.” Or maybe it’s safer to say that “Viva La Vida” is “Burn the Witch” on a Klonopin, since this “new” song has been kicking around for over a decade. There’s a beauty and a subtle sexiness in the groove and string arrangements playing against the total paranoia of the lyrics that makes this and many of the best Radiohead songs pop. The same filthy trick is played in the video. I keep thinking “Why release this now?” and I feel like maybe the answer is “Trump.” Is that too American of me? Fine, uh, “Panama Papers.” TL;DR. It’s good. It was always gonna be good. I gotta fire up Wicker Man again when I get home. Let’s talk about something else, though. This is shaping up to be the record where people who were once ride or die Radiohead fans tire of the band because—I don’t know—we don’t need them anymore since everybody torrented their way into a deeper understanding of music or whatever. This band was the soundtrack to our vapid youth, and being confronted by the ghost of our regular ass gas station parking lot loitering ass seedy shake smoking ass pasts is bound to leave a lot of us a lot of upheaved. Is it Radiohead we’re bored of, though, or who we were when we loved them the hardest? The answer might be surprising.
Oh man, Feli is right. The beginning bars are totally Coldplay. To be frank, I haven’t cared truly and passionately about Radiohead in well over a decade, but I am suddenly thrilled that they’re back. It’s the violins that do it—they inspire all sorts of strange feelings and emotions. For instance I have goose bumps on the back of my thighs, which is super weird because VICE’s London office, where I am right now, does not do air conditioning. We’re all sitting in a very warm room. Anyway, the violins are extremely emotive: angst-inducing one minute— strings plucked with the fury of an army of amphetamine-amped woodpeckers—and elegantly swoon-some the next (take note at 1.44). It builds to a crescendo which would’ve been perfect as the alternate soundtrack to the Psycho shower-stabbing scene. Maybe it’s because indie rock has seemed so very pale and wan of late that this sounds vital and electric by comparison—ironic of course, because physically Yorke is terribly pale and wan—but perhaps this is the beginning of the Radiohead renaissance we never knew we needed.
-Kim Taylor Bennett
While it's no "Clocks," "The Scientist" or "Yellow," but after exactly two listens I feel "Burn the Witch" is a pretty impressive return to form for Radiohead. Certainly better than their recent lackluster Super Bowl performance promised. I've been waiting for what Chris Yorke has to say post-Gwyneth, and here he's not leaving any ammo in the gun. Break-ups are tough, and divorce doubly so. He's clearly hurting here, which makes the orchestral flourishes and upbeat tempo a nice contrast. I give it: Five Steamed Vaginas.
Like most Radiohead songs I think this is about a robot struggling with suicidal thoughts in the face of World War 3. I'm pretty sure OK Computer was themed around some depressed MS-DOS code, so this song is likely about a self-hating problematic Twitter bot, or a drone operated by Isis against its will. Also like most Radiohead songs, I like it an awful lot. Five stars.
The first time I really got Radiohead, I was 15 and sleeping in a tent in the backyard of my friend's house in Oregon. We took 2C-B and she put on "Everything in Its Right Place" and I felt like I was entering Questworld from the 90s Jonny Quest reboot. I went out and bought a Kaoss Pad the next day. That was a long time ago, in a backyard far away, and it turns out I don't actually like Radiohead very much. The minimalist stuff is nice, I guess, but if I wanted to watch Koyaanisqatsi I'd just go watch Koyaanisqatsi.
The conspiracy junkie in me wants to first point out that today is May 3—just two days after May Day—and that the video accompanying “Kill the Witch” is a clear homage to The Wickerman, a May Day-themed 70s cult film about a British police detective who travels to a remote Scottish island to investigate a missing person’s case. Dude is just trying to “fight crime,” but the whole abduction thing ends up being a ploy on the part of the pagan community that lives there to lure him into being their next ritual sacrifice, burned alive inside a giant wooden tower in the shape of a man. It’s a story that pits civilization against nature in an interesting way—“civilization” being the police detective, and “nature” being the creepy, pre-Christian villagers who live outside of the law and live off the fat of the land and make ritual sacrifices to the earth in order to ensure a good harvest.
Combined with the whole “erasing their web presence thing,” I’m tempted to think Radiohead are making some kind of anti-technology/anti-capitalist/anti-“progress” statement here: they’re referring to the West’s pre-Christian past, and doing so through a medium—Claymation—that feels pointedly retro-gazing, all while embracing pastoral strings instead of electronic bloops and bleeps. The whole “Kill The Witch” theme is also pretty consistent with Thom Yorke’s long fascination with creepy nursery rhyme imagery: wolves at the door, Hunting Bears, etc. Maybe after over a decade of “innovating rock” through electronic instrumentation and savvy internet hijinx, they figured the most punk thing they could do was protest the forward march of technology?
At first I was fuming that, as a music journalist, I was obligated to pause N-Dubz to listen to something I assumed would either make me sleepy or depressed, but actually this is alright isn’t it. Thom Yorke’s voice still makes me feel like I’m being followed home at night even while I’m sitting at my desk, and that string section sounds like it was lifted from Alex DeLarge’s inner monologue. But, let’s face it, the ‘Trumpton does The Wicker Man’ video is by far the best part of the whole package. It’s not a game changer for Radiohead or the wider scheme of things, but it does the job.
The most emotionally affecting Radiohead songs aren’t singalongs, they’re panic attacks—the anxious fever dreams of a few sad Brits who’ve spent the majority of their adult lives getting freaked out by Bernard Herrmann scores, evening news broadcasts, and the covers of Aphex Twin records. Claustrophobia’s always compelling, and lo and behold the band’s first broadcast since the slow lope of 2011’s The King of Limbs professes to be just that—“a low flying panic attack,” built out of choked-out strings, garbled electronics, and frontmiser Thom Yorke’s delineation of the perils of social interaction (“Avoid all eye contact/do not react”). It’s an anthem for those with a tendency to get lost in their own heads—a demographic that's traditionally been well served by Radiohead ballads anyway.
"Thom, wake your arse up!" Jonny was always the rudest one, Thom thought, rousing himself from the studio couch. He'd fallen asleep while watching Shaun the Sheep Movie for the third night straight now (One day I'll know what happened to that sheep, he laughed to himself) and was generally exhausted. His band had been in the studio for weeks—months?—in an intervention-styled effort to convince Phil never to make another solo album again.
Like monkeys put in front of typewriters, though, the band had unwittingly started to make music again—an achievement in itself, after a rather ornery Jonny declared he'd never work on a Radiohead album again after contracting a bad case of "swimmer's ear" while mixing the band's previous album.
"Be nicer, Jonny—please," Thom said, invoking the magic word in vain while brushing Walkers crumbs off his Bernie Sanders t-shirt (it was an import). It was times like these that Thom wished he could go back to sleep, maybe forever—to a place devoid of consciousness, and expectation, and of music critics making Burial jokes every time he was in striking distance of a sampler or MPC.
An image lingered in his mind—of Four Tet pantsing him in front of Gilles Peterson a few years ago, while he played the reputable BBC selector his latest dubstep-influenced solo song, "Bring My Bonny to the Ole' Hacking Grounds." "What you yawnin' about?," Jonny asked brusquely, in that tone that irritated Thom so much—that tone that he only used with the band, not the tone he uses when traipsing around India with Mr. Fancypants Paul Thomas Anderson, no sir. Thom felt a vibrate in his pocket; it was his phone, Flea was calling. He turned his phone off.
"I desire to do something different," Thom said to Jonny, the words sounding unnatural as he said them. Why did he always have to say shit that a real human being would ever say? Another flashback, this time to primary school, a note from Thom's teacher to his parents: "Too wordy. Needs to learn to enjoy life more." Authority figures, Thom thought—the fookin' worst.
"Well? What you on about then?" Ugh, Jonny—always saving his pub banter for when they were supposed to be working. He sounds like one of those guys from Blur, Thom thought disdainfully, a dying smile pasted on his face as the thought crossed his mind. "Jonny, be polite. I want to make something organic—like The National."
Jonny wasn't listening. "This what you mean?" he yelled from the other end of the room, banging on some wood blocks and scraping his teeth against an electric guitar. No! Thom yelled in the confines of his head. Why doesn't anyone understand me?"Jonny, focus—I'm about to have a low-flying panic attack if you don't give me some bleedin' respect for once." Thom felt his face get flush. How red did he look? If only he didn't have his manager remove all the mirrors before this studio session…What did superstition even count for these days?
"Low-flyin' panic attack, eh?" Jonny was struggling to open a lager with his teeth—the brute! "That sounds like one of your silly little lyrics, innit?" Thom felt warm, not an angry type of warm, but a sensation thrilling and familiar. You bastard, he thought, glaring through his friend's attempt at a future dental disaster. You always make it all come together, no matter how much I resent you for it.
"Call the string section," Thom spoke with newfound authority. "We got work to do."
This song continues the long Radiohead tradition of sounding like you’re riding one of Saturn’s moons. Which I like! To be frank, I don’t really have any strong opinions on all the weird shit Radiohead has done over the last week—deleting their internet presence, saying they’re not going to release new music, and then releasing new music—other than to say that it’s feels pretty punk, even though Thom Yorke is rich as shit, and I’m here for it. I can appreciate an old British dude who’s still mad as hell at the world, even though he’s had a pretty good life overall. You gotta respect that, right? “Burn the Witch” feels like it’s protesting something—but I don’t know exactly what. The conclusion I’ve made is that Radiohead is still, as Dan Ozzi once wrote, a band for boring nerds, but who am I kidding—I am a boring nerd.
Hey, me again. A lot of people often ask me: Kyle, how do you feel about the new Radiohead song? To which I often respond: I like it, but I probably wouldn't know how to sing along to it at a show. The one time I saw Radiohead, post-King of Limbs, it felt like they were doing one drum solo the whole time. It was cool, but I wanted to yell out the words to "Fake Plastic Trees" or something, too. So whether this is an old track simply being reactivated because witch-burning is trendy these days or what have you, I am happy that it is something you can sing. And I am even happier that the relevant #bars are "avoid all eye contact" and "this is a low-flying panic attack," which is very much my #mood this week. What does it mean? I think it means "shut up and just let it bathe your anxiety in the amniotic fluid of its string sections," you nerds. We're all outcasts or the ones doing the outcasting at some point in our lives, so look deep within yourself and enjoy it for the moment.
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