It is hard to reconcile modern-day Radiohead with the band who marked their entrance with three vicious guitar blasts preceding the chorus of ‘Creep’ in 1992. Gone is lead singer Thom Yorke’s bleach blonde hair. Gone is the introspection. Gone, it could be argued, is the pop sensibility. But never has the ability to surprise and to subvert been stronger.
This is precisely what makes their impending return so very exciting. Unannounced artwork, in their distinctive, heavily abstract visual style, all inky blue atmosphere and soulless white figures, has made its way onto their official website. This, coupled with a spate of announcements of headline slots at festivals abroad, has signalled what we’ve known unofficially since 2014, when whispers of new studio sessions first reared their head: Radiohead is back.
But, of course, they never really left. Since their most recent album, The King of Limbs (2011), the Oxford-raised group have been individually rather busy. Thom Yorke casually formed the supergroup Atoms for Peace with some unknowns – namely Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers and Joey Waronker of Beck and R.E.M. fame. Oh, and he also released a second solo album, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, in 2014. The man is unbelievably prolific.
Furthermore, multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood has, through his eclectic collaborations with director Paul Thomas Anderson on The Master (2012) and Inherent Vice (2014), established himself as one of the most dynamic film composers working in Hollywood today. To cap off a trinity of creatives, drummer Phil Selway also released his second solo album in 2014, entitled Weatherhouse. Take a moment to consider that embarrassing run of releases during your next essay crisis.
Then there’s the issue of a small indie film named Spectre and the resulting Bond theme controversy. After they were rejected by the infinitely wise studio heads at Sony in favour of Sam Smith – because obviously the concept of Radiohead recording a Bond theme wasn’t exciting enough – the band released the rejected track for free online on December 25th 2015. Some Christmas present. But even aside from its intrinsic value, ‘Spectre’ represents an interesting musical crossroads. The heavily syncopated, electronica-drenched sound of The King of Limbs, particularly lead single ‘Lotus Flower,’ seems to have been ditched in favour of grand instrumentation and a return to more emotive and personal lyrics. Granted, this is not the first time for Radiohead to switch up its style, aesthetically moulding themselves to a film to which they have attached their music (see the impeccable ‘Exit Music (For A Film)’ which closes Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet). But the question remains: just how far does this foreshadow whatever release is forthcoming next year?
To observe Radiohead historically, each album contains traces of the next within its sonic vocabulary. OK Computer was quite a departure from its exceptional, late 90s indie boom predecessor The Bends in that it shied away from the guitar-driven indie rock of their previous fame. That, of course, led to arguably their best work, and many fans’ (this one included) favourite album, Kid A, ditching the guitars almost entirely for a more synthetic musical landscape. This development has continued similarly up until today, when their impending sound is once more up in the air.
Though in some ways, the excitement stems from escalation. To chart Radiohead’s sonic development is akin to charting the development of any given top author, or filmmaker – each album becomes a statement of intent, and between each album lies new confidence, experiments and genres, which is precisely what makes them so immediate, and so wonderfully relished in the annals of indie rock.
For Radiohead to produce yet another LP which reaches the band’s impenetrably high standards seems impossible. But to quote the band themselves, “You can try the best you can / the best you can is good enough.” Go on, lads.