When I logged into my Facebook on Tuesday afternoon, the first thing brought to my attention was that a whopping 12 of my friends had shared the link to Radiohead’s new single “Burn The Witch.” A handful more had shared articles about the single. This outpouring answered the first question on mind; yes, Radiohead are still really, really important. In the five years since The King Of Limbs was released, Radiohead have been largely absent from the music world, so it was worth wondering if they still mattered as much as they have, pretty much ever since OK Computer came out. The reaction to “Burn The Witch” has made it clear that people still care about Radiohead a lot, and they are still considered one of the most vital bands around. That brings up the bigger question: Will Radiohead be able to live up to the massive pressure surrounding them?
When The King Of Limbs was released, the reaction was largely positive, but a bit underwhelming compared to past releases. The consensus seemed to be that album was good, but you know, not *that* good. After consistently modifying their sound on every new album, TKOL was the first point where Radiohead had settled into a groove. To someone who had never heard the band before, it would have seemed brilliant, but to those of us who already had our minds altered by Kid A, the reaction was fairly subdued. Radiohead were still giving us great music, but for the first time, it felt like they weren’t giving us anything new.
So, as we head into Radiohead’s long-awaited ninth album on May 8, the big question is whether they have another curveball for us, or if they have settled into a pattern. “Burn The Witch” and “Daydreaming” are certainly encouraging, both are enthralling tracks that kinda sound like they could be on In Rainbows, but at the same time, don’t feel totally like anything Radiohead have done before. If the an entire album sounds like this, Radiohead will once again be strong contenders for album of the year.
One might reasonably ask that if the established Radiohead sound is so strong, why does it matter if the new one is a bit similar to what we’ve heard before? After all, The King Of Limbs was still a great album, with “Lotus Flower” in particular ranking among their best work. Well, it’s a simple question of vitality. Ever since The Bends, Radiohead have thrown different surprises at us on every new album. If this upcoming record feels like a retread — even if it’s still a very good one — it’ll feel like Radiohead have reached that second stage of their career, where their output is still reliably good, but they won’t be catching us off guard anymore.
Now, this doesn’t have to be a bad thing — at least not entirely — because plenty of great acts have reached that stage of their careers and still made great work. Consider the late-period of Bruce Springsteen. Ever since The Rising, we’ve pretty much known what we’re getting from him — he’s not gonna surprise us with anything like Nebraska these days, but he will give us some reliably strong, well-played heartland rock. In another vein, look at Beck. In the early stage of his career, seemingly every album for his was basically a different genre, from the funk of Midnite Vultures to the folk of Sea Change. But on later albums like Guero or The Information, it felt like he had settled into an established sound. So, if Radiohead never innovate the way they did on previous releases, they’ll still likely be giving us some great music. But whether they’ll ever blow our minds the way they did with OK Computer again remains to be seen.
The new songs have certainly been an encouraging. Both are exciting tracks which remind us why Radiohead have mattered so much for the last two decades. They could be the harbinger of something truly great; an album on the level of Radiohead’s best work that will be discussed for years. If Radiohead’s next album is another strong-but-not-earth-shattering work like The King Of Limbs, the public will learn to love it over time, but the initial feeling would be disappointment. But if Radiohead can give us one more truly revolutionary effort, it will be one of the most important albums of the year, and take Radiohead’s already amazing legacy to an even higher level.