It is finally here, after years of waiting, Radiohead has released its ninth LP and even though they dropped it during my finals week, I listened to this constantly. This was easily my most anticipated album of 2016 so I had very high hopes for this. Even if I was not crazy about the band’s last album The King of Limbs I figured we would at least get something interesting, which would not be bad for a group releasing music for 23 years.
As soon as this album came out and I saw the tracklist, which is strangely alphabetized, I smiled with excitement. Over half of the songs on here are from live shows that were never officially recorded in studio. Songs like “Desert Island Disk,” “Ful Stop,” and “True Love Waits” are all tracks I have listened to plenty of time, even if just in a shaky Youtube video. Seeing all these songs on here made me feel that this record would be a special kind of fan service, which is obviously catered to me.
The first two singles, which serve as the two opening tracks, are both excellent and start this album off right. “Burn the Witch” which sucks you in with its aggressive string section and generally claustrophobic sound. The song taps on themes of paranoia associated with groupthink and has been linked to possibly relating to topics like surveillance and Islamophobia. Knowing Radiohead we will not get a definite answer on the exact meaning, but considering their vague lyrics have been a draw for me, I would not have it any other way.
Things slow down considerably for the next track “Daydreaming,” a song that starts getting the sadder emotions flowing. Maybe it has to do with guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s involvement in doing film scores, but this, as well as several other tracks, have a cinematic feel to them. The piano compliments Thom Yorke’s delicate vocals well as he sings of how those with big visions often become detached from the reality they live in. We also get the first glimpse at the reoccurring theme of heartbreak, making sense as Yorke and his partner of 23 years have separated, with lyrics relating to wanting to serve someone. Also the end of the song can be reversed and slowed to reveal the lyrics “half of my life” being repeated. Considering Yorke is 47 this clearly is an allusion to his ex-partner.
“Decks Dark” is similar to the third track on OK Computer “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” as they both relate to alien ships coming down to Earth. While the older song relates to Yorke wanting to be taken by aliens to get away from feeling isolated, the aliens appear to be what he wants to avoid here. But as the song notes, the spaceship makes loud sounds and cannot be avoided. The song is obviously not about aliens, instead using them as a likely metaphor for his breakup. This theme of an empty relationship without purpose comes across well and just breaks your heart.
These themes carry onto “Ful Stop” which seems to show a more menacing side to Yorke as he starts off saying “you really messed up everything” and “why should I be good when you’re not?” This is essentially Thom Yorke letting his old partner know while this is a foul tasting medicine, the truth is hard and will mess with you. He ends by begging to go back to a time when this truth was not exposed.
The song “Identikit” is one of the best I have heard from Radiohead in years and also taps into the relationship troubles of Yorke. He sings of “sweet-faced ones with nothing left inside” that we can love and will try to be ignorant of when they hurt you. This builds up to the song’s centerpiece where Yorke repeats “broken hearts, make it rain” with the kind of emotive energy that we rarely get to see from him. These line is also sung with the help of a choir that is used brilliantly.
“Present Tense” breaks your heart, as it seems to be the moment where Yorke is truly hit by the crisis he is living in. He is dealing with moving on, not saying what he wants to say to his ex-partner, and how lost he is in his partner, not knowing whether he is broken hearted or still in love with her. In the end he realizes “that all this love could be in vain.”
Amazingly, after citing all these themes, I cannot even say that this is necessarily a breakup record as it is mixed with themes of general anxiety similar to those expressed on “Burn the Witch.” I am honestly happy with this as breakup records have a tendency to eventually get overbearing. For every Sea Change by Beck and For Emma, Forever Ago by Bon Iver we get something like Usher’s Raymond V. Raymond or Robin Thicke’s Paula.
The song “Glass Eyes,” another beautifully arranged piano ballad, paints an image of Yorke’s anxiety from society. We see him stepping off a train and instantly wanting to turn around because of how empty and unfriendly everyone around him seems. The song then pivots to another major theme on the record, nature. Yorke describes himself feeling more at ease when he goes into the mountains where he is surrounded by nature.
Even though Yorke himself said he would not make a climate change themed protest song, he seems to have done exactly that on “The Numbers,” a folksier track on here. Lyrically the song is true poetry, gently tackling how the people are being hidden from the facts of climate change by the media that are under the “spell” of corporation. The song gives us hope, Yorke makes a stand saying “we call upon the people” and “the numbers don’t decide/your system is a lie” alluding to the fact that we can beat the system to take care of ourselves and the planet we live on. The idea that we are forever a part of Earth as once we die we return to it, is great and delivered in a beautiful way.
If there was any nit-picks I have with this it would be with the track “Tinker Tailor Soldier Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief” which continues the nature themes by describing the effects climate change is having on the world around us. The track suffers a little from its length, which is too long, and from not being able to match the emotional impact of the tracks leading up to it. This being said, it comes with great intentions and the sounds of the strings here are magnificent so I cannot say it is a bad song by any means, just not a great one.
The closer, the 21 year old “True Love Waits,” is such a strong conclusion to the emotional journey this album takes us on. As someone who was already familiar with this song thanks to a live recording of it on I Might Be Wrong (Live), I was excited to hear the studio version of this emotionally gutting song. Maybe it was because of the emotion that had been swelling throughout this album, or maybe it was the piano that has been added, but the song had never hit me as strong as it did on this record. Lyrically, Yorke describes all the things he would do to keep his partner around, even if that means he is just wasting his life. He states that true love requires very little to stay around only needing “lollipops and crisps.” We get the final lyrics of Yorke seemingly begging “Just don’t leave, don’t leave” as the piano fades away. Some, including myself, have speculated that this is not directed at any woman in Yorke’s life but is directed towards the fans. Those who follow the group closely know they will not be around too much longer and there is a chance that this is the final Radiohead album. This makes sense as they seemed to make this for the fans, putting all these old songs together so people could finally enjoy them. We see the idea of Yorke doing everything in his power to keep his fans happy before realizing he is not even living anymore. The last lines could signal that while Radiohead will not be making anymore music, he desperately hopes that they will stay and continue to love the group. Of course, this is all speculation, but if it were to be true this would be one hell of a way to end an amazing career.
I got everything I wanted from this album and so much more. It is one of the greatest albums to come out this year, and will hopefully be remembered as a high point in Radiohead’s discography. Fans of the band will love this and I recommend anyone who has enjoyed anything from this group to give this a chance. I hope that this is not actually the end for Radiohead, it is painful just thinking about it, but if they were to go out with something, this would be it.
Best Tracks: Burn the Witch, Daydreaming, Decks Dark, Desert Island Disk, Ful Stop, Glass Eyes, Identikit, The Numbers, Present Tense, True Love Waits
Worst Track: Tinker Tailor Soldier Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief