Your first impression of a Radiohead album is not going to cut the mustard. Like all of their recent stuff, and by recent I’m talking the last 15-20 years, the more you listen, the more is revealed. This isn’t a mistake, or chance, or pure luck. Here’s a band that still believe in the concept of an album, and a band who still believe that their music needs to keep giving, as it keeps evolving. It’s not, and never would be, a record you throw on, listen to once or twice, and then consign to the Coldplay bin. Unless it is, in which case, why are you still reading?
If you are reading, it’s ‘cos you like Radiohead, love them, maybe. And if you do, you have the album, you’ve listened to it, digested it. You’re here looking for some confirmation bias, or for some keyboard jockey to throw abuse at. See the 4/5? That’s pointless. It means nothing. If you go by what the score is, why bother reading the review? But one was needed cos that’s the style. Four out of five because this isn’t the greatest album ever made. It’s not even the greatest album this year, but after a five year wait, in a rock-music vista that’s seeming more and more depopulated, this album is a great thing.
So, how are Radiohead after such an absence? Are we still where we left it, with the kinetic tension of King of Limbs? Out and out, joyous rock of In Rainbows? You already know that all’s well on this record, and by that I mean that the creeping, anxious paranoia is present, gnashing at the hem of each and every song. Yorke is in fine fettle, to the fore, commanding in his misery, soaring and sailing above the music with consummate ease. The overall impression is of a record almost between its two predecessors, the beats toned down to let a band play, and ballads and mid tempo tracks playing out in an almost pastoral, pot-prog seventies style.
Opening track and lead single ‘Burn The Witch’ turned up with a lovely stop motion video in the style of Trumpton meets The Wicker Man. Did you get that? Trumpton? Trump Town, because of America and that. And The Wicker Man, a film about fear of outsiders and fundamentalism and the like. Are we being hectored, politically? Maybe we deserve to be politically hectored, after all, look at the gobshites we keep putting in charge of the country, but the combination of lyrics and visuals seems pretty clear. The sense that we’re on the receiving end of a preach, however, is dissipated by ‘Daydreaming’, the subtle, keening ballad that follows. On the surface it’s a series of mournful arpeggios, but under the surface, it’s bubbling with tension, met by plaintive strings, culminating in a kind of chorus of backwards mumblings. It’s an oddly beautiful experience. It segues neatly into ‘Decks Dark’, wherein York lilts like Liz Fraser on Massive Attack’s ‘Teardrop’. The standout track is arguably ‘Ful Stop’, a dark, motorik dirge: “You really messed up everything”, Yorke admonishes, probably to himself. It emerges from muddy, treacly darkness into tinny light across its six minutes.
Here’s a band who still have mastery of their craft. ‘Glass Eyes’ is a string laden panic attack – they’re a recurring motif throughout, of course. Johnny Greenwood has earned his chops in Hollywood, after all, and the London Contemporary Orchestra are a terrific accompaniment through the album, from swelling and sustaining here, to other moments where the groan of a stabbed contrabassoon adds even more drama. ‘Identikit’ could have made the cut on InRainbows. A minor complaint would be that when they play in that ensemble mode, Selway’s limited rock-idiom drumming is laid bare again. He works much better when he’s involving beats and clicks, or driving, thumping away. ‘Present Tense’ is reminiscent of ‘Jigsaw Falling into Place’, laden with odd, off-beat percussion. It’s underneath the surface of the songs that the band are beavering away, creating the oddniks and weird sounds that might, in time, be the things you listen to this record for. ‘True Love Waits’, which last appeared on I Could Be Wrong and was played at shows as much as twenty years ago, finally finds a home.
It’s tempting, because it makes us look clever, to read too much into everything. The fact is that Thom Yorke’s long term relationship ended, and there’s no doubt that this record is influenced by that. But it’s influenced by everything, and deconstructing Yorke is a pointless exercise anyway. As ever it’s sound bites and lines and a wash of vocals wherein words don’t even exist. I’m not going to bore us all, me especially, with some kind of thesis on what he’s on about. This is a Radiohead album, and as ever it’s deep, dark and beautiful. Restrained and wonderfully executed. Different to King of Limbs, but not better. And more and more, as the mainstream devolves into some kind of possession obsessed, over produced pop, and rock leaves us cold with puerility like The Stone Roses, or saccharine tooth-decayers Coldplay, Radiohead are as important as ever.