One thing Radiohead has been doing for a while that few other bands do, is taking a long, long time to get songs right. They will often play a song live for years before it turns up on a record. In Rainbows standout Nude was first heard by audiences in 1998, almost a decade before the band released it. Burn the Witch has a long history with Radiohead fans, with the track having been teased on unfinished tracklists, and in concert since Hail to the Thief. This long build-up is of particular note, because in spite of spending many years in gestation, this track is the most political and current Radiohead have sounded since the turn of the century.
It’s entirely possible that the current political climate of unrest and discrimination allows one to read into Thom Yorke’s menacing lyrics about authoritarianism – “do not react / shoot the messengers” – but Radiohead have long been a band to time their releases carefully, and Burn the Witch sounds like a scathing indictment of our time. Yorke proves himself again to be a master of the catchy-yet-disturbing lyric, with “this is a low flying panic attack” standing out amongst the paranoia and cynicism.
Instrumentally, the song explores a chamber-pop territory the band has only flirted with in the past. Over a col legno string section, brooding electronic beats lend the song a nervous energy, and the contrast between distinctly old-fashioned and digital sounds evokes the band’s signature sense of displacement. Johnny Greenwood’s orchestral work on film scores pays dividends on the track, and the band sounds energised in a way they haven’t since Kid A. The way the violins slide further and further out of key in the final thirty seconds of the track evokes a real apocalyptic verve, and the song’s menace bodes well for the band’s upcoming album.