100 Best Songs of the 2010s – #26: “Burn the Witch” by Radiohead

The song at #26 on my list of 100 Best Songs of the 2010s is “Burn the Witch” by legendary British alternative rock band Radiohead. Formed in 1985 while they were in high school, the band consists of Thom Yorke (vocals, guitar, piano, keyboards), brothers Jonny Greenwood (lead guitar, keyboards, other instruments) and Colin Greenwood (bass), Ed O’Brien (guitar, backing vocals) and Philip Selway (drums, percussion).

The release of their amazing ninth studio album A Moon Shaped Pool was one of the music highlights of 2016. The brilliant lead single from that album “Burn the Witch” is one of the most eerily beautiful and innovative songs of the decade. The band had worked on the track on and off for over 10 years, considering it for inclusion on several of their previous albums, but were never satisfied with the results until it was given this gorgeous arrangement by their guitarist Jonny Greenwood, with lush strings performed by the London Contemporary Orchestra. What gives the strings their dramatic percussive effect was the use of guitar plectrums, rather than bows, on the orchestra musicians’ strings. The sounds produced by the strings go from lushly beautiful to deathly chilling, like the sounds we’d expect to hear in a horror film.

The dark lyrics, hauntingly sung by Thom Yorke’s beautiful falsetto, are an attack on groupthink and authoritarianism: “abandon all reason / avoid all eye contact / do not react / shoot the messengers / burn the witch“. Yorke stated in an interview with BBC Radio that the lyrics were inspired by a 2000 article he read in News of the World that published the names and addresses of sex offenders.

The clever, stop-action animation video, directed by Chris Hopewell, pays homage to the 1973 horror film The Wicker Man.

RADIOHEAD – Single Review: “Burn the Witch”

 

I love Radiohead’s new single “Burn the Witch” from their latest album A Moon Shaped Pool, released in May 2016. The song’s dark lyrics, hauntingly sung by Thom Yorke’s beautiful falsetto, sharply contrast with the gorgeous arrangement by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood and lush strings performed by the  London Contemporary Orchestra.

So too with the clever, cartoonish video, as Radiohead wanted it to contast with the song’s darker meaning. Directed by Chris Hopewell, the video uses stop-motion animation in the style of the 1960s English children’s television Trumpton Trilogy programs. It pays homage to the 1973 horror film The Wicker Man. (Wikipedia) An inspector is greeted by a town official and invited to see a series of unsettling sights, culminating in the unveiling of a huge wicker man. The official urges the inspector to climb into the wicker man, whereupon he is locked inside and the wicker man is set on fire. As the flames build, the townspeople turn their backs to the burning wicker man. After the song ends, the inspector appears to have escaped, with birds chirping happily among the trees.

Pitchfork writer Marc Hogan suggested that the use of the Trumpton Trilogy style, which portrays an idyllic, crime-free rural Britain, is intended to satirize the rhetoric of family values used by right-wing politicians such as Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, and members of the UK Independence Party.

As a footnote, according to an article in The Guardian, the son-in-law of Trumpton creator Gordon Murray stated that the family had not been asked permission to use the style for the video, and saw it as a “tarnishing of the brand.” He added that they would not have allowed its use, considered it a breach of copyright, and were “deciding what to do next.”