A low-flying panic attack: Early thoughts on ‘Burn The Witch’.
Ah, damn it. All this for just one song. It’s a beautiful song of course, but fans were expecting the immense build-up to lead to the new album: Dawn Chorus, as it’s being called among many fan forums, or the more generic LP9, until we get the actual name. For now, we’ll have to make do with ‘Burn The Witch’, the first single from this mythical new Radiohead record that’s been in the works, off and on, for the past five years. That’s not a big problem, since, mathematically, one song is infinitely better than zero.
‘Burn The Witch’ is an exquisite piece of music — ominous and, at the same time, resplendent. No. ‘Burn The Witch’ is a tellingly mediocre song, elevated ostensibly through attention-grabbing frills, pizzicato flourishes, and marketing gimmickry. No. ‘Burn The Witch’ is not a song at all; it’s a symbolic foreshadowing of the worrying sense of paranoia at the heart of every human being. No. ‘Burn The Witch’ is just a song — good, not great, not terrible. No. ‘Burn The Witch’ is a briefcase filled with blank A4 sheets of recycled paper. No. And so forth.
Consensus is split down the middle, predictably. But what’s undeniable is that ‘Burn The Witch’ is just this long whoosh sound escaping the stomach in collective relief. Like when you’re waiting on some news, even if it’s bad news, and you just want it over with. Then, you sit back for a second, take a moment’s break, and let it sink in. And you make a whoosh sound.
On early listens, the song, while quite clearly a departure from previous incarnations of their music, does owe some allegiance to Hail to the Thief and The King of Limbs. It seems to bring together the heavily-truncated, almost-stifling rhythmic intensity of the latter with the large, open spaces and traipsing percussions of Hail to the Thief. The underlying melody has a surprising (and welcome) accessibility about it, hoisted further by the menacing string arrangements that develop the narrative to a disturbing peak. But scrutinising just the one song is pointless; their music traditionally lends itself to the ‘album experience’, and the songs usually make far more sense in their rightful context. For now, there’s a delightful stop-motion video to dissect and drool over.
Radiohead, as a general rule, don’t have ‘fans’ like most bands do; they have disciples. And they have skeptics and disbelievers. Respect and admiration gives way to adulation, which itself inevitably gives way to frantic obsession. Or to suspicion and mistrust. They’re also masters at exploiting their position at the top of the rock ‘n’ roll food chain to experiment and mess with music industry standards/screw their fans around/build up hype to maximise the impact and profits. It depends on which side you lean toward.
In that context, looking at the PR spin around the release of this song (and hopefully the album) becomes an exciting exercise.
Dawn Chorus LLP was set up in January, leading to speculation about a new album since they usually set up a new company before an album release.
Then they set up another company, this one called Dawnchorus Ltd. Band members have revealed precious little in sporadic, accidental interviews. But Stanley Donwood, long-time collaborator on their artwork, did say that the album is a “work of art”. Then their manager, Brian Message, said the album will be “like nothing you’ve ever heard”. Great way to keep expectations under check, yes? Then it was leaked that Paul Thomas Anderson, frequent collaborator with Jonny Greenwood, is rumoured to have directed a new video.
None of that prepared fans for what came next, though. Some mysterious leaflets with lyrics from ‘Burn The Witch’ reached fans’ homes in the UK. Sounds par for the course. Last Sunday though, fans noticed that their official website was decreasing in opacity through the day, slowing fading to white. One by one, all the tweets on their official Twitter page began to disappear. The photo disappeared. Then the Facebook page began to self-destruct. Thom Yorke’s personal Twitter page was soon left with zero tweets as well. They had erased their digital identity almost entirely.
Radiohead share a complicated relationship with the internet, but this was still a bold, unprecedented move. I may be a giddy, borderline obsessive fan of Radiohead. But I do understand that this is also, above all, a grand marketing stunt; let’s not pretend. I used to pride myself in never buying into the PR spin around music; that I was a bit of a hipster about such things. But no; turns out I’m no hipster. I’m only a mere hypester.
That said, how perversely audacious is it? Wherever you look, you have artists increasing their “digital presence”, engaging with fans directly, building up a relationship, getting more followers and, indirectly, more sales. And here you have a band doing the exact opposite. It’s ballsy, and impressive just for the absurdity of it. Call it a genius move only Radiohead could come up with, or call it a cynical marketing ploy exploiting overeager fans unable to look past the hype — both are equally valid hypotheses.
But you know, artists are forever searching for ways to get fans excited about new music — a seemingly impossible task given modern media overload. You have Kanye West going mental on social media; you have Beyonce pushing her “visual album” filled with collaborations; surprise releases; Tidal-only releases; Pledge campaigns; long-drawn promotional campaigns. They’re all stunts, just like this is, and they all share a sense of iconoclasm, misplaced or not. What Radiohead have done just seems to be an effective, instantly striking stunt. There’s legitimate hysteria around it, and that’s amazing. I’ve already bought the song off iTunes (for a grand Rs.15), and I very much intend to buy the album too, then the physical copy, then the boxset, then the re-issue.
But here’s where things get a little murky. Deleting yourself, then posting vague, cryptic clips on Instagram (that later turned out to be from the video) is not a plausible move for anyone who’s not Radiohead. They have a devoted cult following, so they can afford to do this, just like they could afford to try out a pay-what-you-want release model and still make lots of money off it. Just like how they could ditch said format and go back to selling their music the way they wanted to. Just like how they can claim to be this ‘people’s band’ that’s forever flipping off the big evil corporate music business, and yet still charge a ridiculous 50 pounds for their live shows. Just like how they can be outspoken in their contempt for Spotify, then release the song on it. I’m not saying any of this is morally worrying or fraudulent — to me, it just signifies a restless tendency to try out different things, followed by self-reflection — but (and this is a recent revelation) let’s not gloss over the difficult questions either. Let’s also not idealise the band (outside of the music) and bestow this image of perfection on to them with misguided zeal. Thom Yorke is not the saviour.
Then again, maybe he is.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com.
By Akhil Sood
Photo Credits: www.youtube.com