Radiohead’s music often works like a puzzle, and it’s not clear whether many people ever solved the one posed by their 2011 album, The King of Limbs, whose funereal swirl only fleetingly provided the beauty and pop payoff that defined the band’s previous work.
Today’s new Radiohead song, “Burn the Witch,” blessedly does not hide its power. Sonically novel yet viscerally moving, gorgeous yet terrifying, it is the sound of Radiohead returning to do what it exists to do. The video is a claymation retelling of The Wicker Man, in which a police officer arrives at a town that is—spoiler alert!—secretly preparing to burn him in a ritual sacrifice. Thom Yorke’s lyrics speak of the kind of mass action and complacency that allows such a crime and, the logic probably goes, many other cruelties committed by societies.
It’s an orchestral pop song, but the orchestra is taking cues from heavy metal, chugga-chugga-chugga-ing the entire time. No wonder: A room full instruments acting frenetically, insistently, and not quite in unison is as fitting an approximation for a bustling murderous mob as any music might provide. Radiohead’s post-Bends interest in fusing acoustic and electronic elements continues with a drum machine and big, dubby low end creating menace and groove. The multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood’s solo and soundtrack work has often sounded like this, but without the girding of a verse/chorus/verse/chorus or Thom Yorke’s spindly melodic sensibility. Perhaps the closest thing in the band’s catalogue to this song would be the similarly roiling and poignant chamber pop “Weird Fishes / Arpeggi” and “Reckoner,” off of 2007’s In Rainbows.
The magic of the song is in large part from how it starts intense but still finds ways to intensify. The anxiety-making central sonic engine keeps thrumming along as the dynamics shift dramatically—higher, lower, quieter, louder. In the second verse, string melodies swoop in to play beautiful counterpoint to Yorke, who’s as mushy-mouthed but strangely catchy as ever. Everything froths together for a nightmarish crescendo at the end, where the video portrays the attempted human sacrifice. Mercifully, a coda in the clip shows the cop surviving. The relief he feels surely is shared by Radiohead fans, glad to have the band back with such an enjoyable and forward-thinking song.