“Burn The Witch”

Sunday during church I paid even less attention than usual, constantly refreshing my feed at /r/radiohead. As the day went by, the band slowly faded out their website and then deleted all their social media history. (Tangentially, I did the same thing. Now my Facebook timeline is totally blank.) Then an Instagram account popped up with little snippets of music.

And the single for LP9 dropped.

Burn The Witch

“Burn The Witch” has been teased at concerts for years now, and we finally have the full version of it here.

At first listen the song feels like the happy medium between the rock oriented sound of In Rainbows and the dense polyrhythmns of King of Limbs. But there is more going on here than just mashing up two old sounds. Immediately obvious is the orchaestral instrumentation provided by Jonny Greenwood. He’s been listening to a lot of Steve Reich lately, with the percussive, driving strings taking a page from Music For 18 Musicians. While that piece captures the dull throb of urban life in its monotony, “Burn The Witch” takes those themes and adds disconcerting color to them. A low synthesizer saws through the mix, sounding like an effect out of a horror movie, a ghost crying out for vengeance. The Reich homage is not accidental. Like the famous composers piece, “Burn The Witch” concerns itself with the bland repetition of modern life, but tells us that our society is not just boring, there are sinister and dangerous actions flowing just underneath the surface.

Lyrically, Thom Yorke is back in his paranoid state, singing about panic attacks and hinting at mass surveillance. His vocals are damaged, almost frail. He is living in this world, he is the witch, just like all of us. As his falsetto pierces through the driving strings and electronic percussion, he finding himself on trial for nothing more than standing out against the mechanical order. Who are the witches? The ones who stand out, who break away. With Yorke’s political beliefs in mind, it’s easy to imagine him singing about Edward Snowden and the other whistle blowers.

The music video gives us even more insight into Radiohead’s perception of the world. In this model town the gallows are beautified with flowers. Fresh fruits are harvested, but only to satiate alcoholism. Everyone dresses well, but only because a human sacrifice is in order. Here we find parallels to how the powers-to-be have normalized death and violence in our life. Police brutality is heroic, the Patriotic Act is a protection, whistle blowers are terrorists. But get under the surface of the false patriotism and the normalized violence we see what our world really is: a model town of witch burners, looking for the next victim.

LP9 can’t come soon enough. As exceptional as Burn The Witch is, I am excited to see how the rest of the album sounds. Traditionally Radiohead releases their most easily accessible song as the single right before the new album, so we should see it any day now. If this song is any sign of what is to come, we are in for a treat.

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