This album came out of nowhere! Granted, I guess we could have picked up on something happening when Radiohead started deleting its entire social media presence. Hey, maybe they were trying to show us how to disappear completely? Yeah, we’re starting off here with a softball Kid A joke, it’s gonna be that kind of review, folks. I have two tracks to share with you from the official Radiohead release, but unfortunately neither of those tracks are the marquis final track of True Love Waits, which was something special. This album was shocking in many levels, because I pride myself in being fairly in tune with the music community, but I didn’t hear much more than a passing rumor about a new Radiohead release until it fell on our doorsteps. Luckily, their webpage provides a digital version of the album so I was able to pick it up and listen to it immediately yesterday, and six minutes in to the album, I knew I would be writing about it for you all. To paraphrase a character from a TV show I don’t want to think about any more, this album is hauntingly beautiful.
This first track, Burn The Witch, was the first sign of things to come. It was released without any fanfare on May 3rd, just a week ago from today. The internet picked up on it and went into a predictable frenzy (isn’t that what the internet seems to about everything these days?). In the internet’s defense, this is their first album since The King of Limbs, so it’s been five years since we’ve heard much new work from Thom and the boys. Sure, Thom came out with his solo album of Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes a couple years ago, and it was fine with a decent combination of Thom’s floating voice with some more electronic tools, but it was no Radiohead. I should admit before I go any further, I’m a relatively new fan of Radiohead. I wasn’t really into them in high school, and it wasn’t until college that I started to get into them. So, it may be misleading to say I’m relatively a new fan, having only been interested in them for a bit over ten years, but in Radiohead years that means the first “new” Radiohead album that came out after I started liking them was In Rainbows.
Back to Burn The Witch now. This track feels like the most upbeat one on the entire album, in terms of tempo and beat, not lyrically mind you. It’s a lot less somber musically than some of the others. This whole album has an aura of sadness surrounding it. It’s not a concept album like some of their albums from before, but it cuts to the core dealing fairly head on with heartbreak and loss. Something huge about this track that you Radiohead fans may notice right off the bat is the inclusion of strings. This is a brilliant addition to their music and it fits perfectly within the album. I would argue that the tracks that feature strings (ie Tinker Tailor, and True Love Waits, but more on that later) are far and above the best ones on the album. I’ve always been a fan of a band using a string accompaniment, usually in the case of prog rock (or Kiss and Metallica), and Radiohead used it so well to add another element to the music. Radiohead has always written complicated music with many layers and elements and hidden gems, and adding a string layer to the rest puts it over the top. I can’t gush enough about how the strings improve the music. They were mixed well with the rest of the instruments and don’t drown each other out, while Thom’s voice floats above it all.
This second track, Daydreaming, is also the second track off the album. That’s all I have to give you now. I have been looking for an NPR-style stream but to no avail. You’ll just need to buy the album to hear more from it. Unlike Burn The Witch directly before this, Daydreaming goes into an emotionally heavy piano piece that caught me completely off guard. Thom sure loves that piano, and it pays off beautifully in this track. They drop the strings and bring the piano to the forefront, seemingly leaving the rest of the band behind. This track, like a couple others featured on this album, almost feel like more of a Thom solo project when he’s on the piano singing by himself. As far as Radiohead albums go, this one is fairly stripped and raw compared to their others. They add in electronic twitches here and there, but in Daydreaming, there’s just Thom, the keyboard, the fuzzy Kid-A in and out vocal effects, and a very light bassline trailing in and out of the track. As the track closes out, an electronically altered string element drones back and forth, until it all falls away back to the piano once again. It’s a fascinating track and one that well captures the spirit of this album.
Moving from Daydreaming into Decks Dark, the band chimes in once again. The guitar and drums are back with us again, but they are quiet compared to the piano and Thom again. It’s no accident that earlier I referred to this effort as “Thom and the boys”, because he is the main focus of this album by far. Also, like I alluded to before, this album discards a lot of the more complicated electronic instruments they used in The King of Limbs (remember Lotus Flower? Far cry from this album, eh?), opting for the simplicity of a piano. On Decks Dark and a few other tracks, they also bring in a choir to back them up, and what a difference it makes. The band still keeps some of their electronic tricks and effects, because they wouldn’t be Radiohead without them, including the distorted drum beat and wandering synths. The album flows very well, despite each song usually being quite different from the one before it. Decks Dark is dark and haunting, and then the next track, Desert Island Disk, opens right up into something more acoustic and welcoming.
Desert Island Disk is a very simple track, again pulling away from the strings of before and opting instead with an acoustic guitar and a very light drum tap behind it. A keyboard pops in and falls away just as soon as you were getting used to it in the track, and then the track just fades away with the light drone of the guitar string. Some elements of drone are fairly consistent in this album, whether they are in Thom’s voice hovering around one note for long stretches, or with the keyboards drifting listlessly, or something else entirely. Ful Stop is a great example of that, as the notes go on for much longer than you think they should. It makes a six minute song, and the second longest on the album, go by very strangely. It is a track that I think will divide Radiohead fans, because it is very challenging to listen to. The droning synthesizer stays through the song as Thom says things like “you really messed up everything” while the drum machine ticks along to the track. About halfway through the track, the droning breaks down and morphs into more of an actual song. I immediately get the reminiscent feeling of David Bowie’s Blackstar (read the review of Blackstar here!), with the vocals and instruments behind Yorke. I can’t put my finger on it but it felt like something out of Blackstar. It will take more listens to get to the bottom of that, but the feeling was definitely there.
From Ful Stop, we move on to Glass Eyes, which is the shortest track on the album and is quite nice. Sure, the piano and Thom are again at the forefront, and the strings chime in to make the song very smooth and comfortable. I could swear I even heard a bird chirping in the background of the song as well. It’s a lovely track from start to finish, and leads straight into Identikit, which I feel is one of the most Radiohead-esque tracks on the album. It’s hard to describe what a typical Radiohead song is like, much like my debate earlier this year on what genre is the band Deftones, because I don’t know if there is one single quintessential Radiohead song and I’d be hard pressed to fit Radiohead into one main genre unless I could pick art rock. This album has a lot more folk influences than some of the previous ones, but it has so much more. The complexity of Identikit is refreshing and features everything I would expect to hear in a general (maybe even generic) Radiohead song. The twangy guitar, the “I can’t tell if it’s a drum machine or Phil Selway” drum tapping, Thom hitting all sorts of notes, the smooth bassline holding everything together, and the out of nowhere but surprisingly decent guitar solo. It’s all just so Radiohead to me. It may be one of my favorite non-stringed tracks on the album, but maybe it’s because it hit all my expectations.
Identikit ends almost abruptly after the slow rolling guitar solo, and The Numbers comes out of the silence like an acoustic lite-Zeppelin. The riff sounds so familiar, and yet so far away. I didn’t think I’d ever find the comparison between Radiohead and Led Zeppelin, so there it is. I don’t even need to describe the song beyond that. Let’s move on to Present Tense, shall we? Surprisingly, the guitar stays out again for two tracks in a row, but along with an egg shaker until the drums chime in. I can also hear in the background of this track that Jonny brought back his Ondes Martenot again, which is the wavering woo-ing sound along with the choir in the background of Present Tense. He uses it elsewhere in the album, and I’ll have to listen for it when I go through the album many more times. After Present Tense, we get to the penultimate track, Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief. I’ll only type that out once.
Tinker Tailor’s drum beat in this track immediately makes me think of a steam engine. Seriously, the cymbals sound so modified that they sound like a locomotive letting off steam. Again, though, a very somber and simplistic song. The strings really tie this track together, just like the rug really tied the room together, did it not? The almost muted drums seem like an afterthought, but I’m fine with in this instance the strings getting the highlight towards the end of the track. They’re beautiful and haunting. That’s three times I’ve used haunting in this review.
Let’s wrap this up by diving into True Love Waits, which as most of us know was originally written over twenty years ago, but only existed in a live format. You may have heard a live bootleg of it before if you haven’t seen them in concert, and it was always something special you hoped you would hear again. They did release it on a live album in the early 2000s but I never picked that album up. This is the big one, though. It’s the one everyone was waiting for, and it’s the perfect track to end this incredibly impressive album. I don’t have much negative to say about this album, because it was a shock from the very beginning. A few of the tracks on this album, including True Love Waits, were written a long time ago, so for them to come out all together on this album was a wonderful surprise to Radiohead fans. It’s arguably the simplest track on the album, composed almost exclusively of Thom on the piano singing this song. You may be more familiar with Thom on the acoustic guitar for this one instead of the piano, and the piano version is far superior. It’s heartwrenching, and one of the few tracks that the lyrics popped out at me right off the bat. With lyrics like “don’t leave, don’t leave” it’s hard to miss what he’s talking about in this track. I guess some purists could be upset with this re-version of a track they’ve listened to for many years, but both versions are out there and this one doesn’t delete the earlier one. I think it expands upon it, and you can think what you like as well.
Overall, this album was a revelation. This review got a little longer winded than I expected, but it really invoked a lot of emotions and had some amazing moments within it. I won’t say that this album is the best Radiohead album since blah blah favorite album, because that seems to upset diehard fans that like certain albums over others, but it’s terrific. I’d be crazy not to give this album a very high score, like 14 out of 15 Ratings Units. The flaws were minimal and can be brushed over, and this album is deep. You could spend a lot of time digging deep into this album to pull things out that I merely glossed over. You could break down the lyrics and get a whole new meaning to the album. Remember the term “hauntingly beautiful” that I tossed out way at the beginning? That. That’s what I have to say about the new Radiohead album. Well done.
Thanks for reading, everyone, and for sticking through this whole review. I should have another review posted this week to make up for lost time. I can’t guarantee it’ll be of the quality that this album was, but it’s worth writing about for other good reasons.