We should have expected it really, Radiohead haven't been fans of the conventional release strategy for a while now, but I can't have been the only one to pick their jaw up from the floor on Valentine's Day when a tweet popped up in my timeline announcing that they would be releasing their new album that Saturday. In the end they didn't even wait that long, releasing it 24 hours early on the Friday and catching me doubly unawares as I travelled into town, miles away from the computer where I was planning to download my preordered copy. Thank whichever Taiwanese genius is responsible for my smartphone and curse my impatience as I watched the file slowly downloading whilst I was stuck in rehearsals, it was at least thrilling to feel genuine excitement about a new release again.
So whilst everyone else was rushing to listen and pass judgement in a race to be the first newspaper/blog/forum to write a review of the album that had caught everyone napping I remembered that the thing with Radiohead is that you always need to immerse yourself in their work. This isn't the latest single from a chart sensation: a quick-fix of pop as refreshing, commercially successful and short-term as a glass of coke. This is a Radiohead album, something they've fretted over and possibly come to blows over so the least you can do is give it a bit of your time. In the course of the last fortnight I have listened again and again, changing my opinions repeatedly, finding new moments of interest, nuances and connections and the short version is: it's good.
We're talking four stars good; the kind of good that is just plain good on a first listen, nothing exceptional, then things start to make themselves clearer and it's good; before you then start to appreciate just how much is going on and it becomes Good (with a capital G). Album (although at 8 tracks under 40 mins that might be stretching it) opener Bloom is a great example. A piano intro is quickly distorted, skittering drums confuse the rhythm, electronic ticks abound and it isn't until a jazz-like bass comes in that we start to settle slightly, Thom Yorke's vocal finally bringing in the steadying line that makes it a track rather than a sketch. The kind of electronic meddling that a few albums ago felt like it was preventing the real tune from coming through here has reached maturity. Choral sweeps follow guitar lines and distortion, lead naturally into echoed horns before the track achieves its full structure with complimentary vocals before breaking down again to that fractured piano from the beginning. This is the sound of a band in control, where each constituent part has found comfort in whatever they bring to the table (and in recent times that doesn't always mean playing the instrument you thought you played).
Actual guitars begin Morning Mr. Magpie with its sinister lyrics - 'You've got some nerve coming here/ You stole it all give it back' and classic Radiohead slow build of bass, high vocals, guitars and keyboard noise, something I have found curiously moving when listening repeatedly; that oppressive build that suddenly disappears. Little By Little is redolent of Radiohead of late where it sounds like every member of the band is playing several instruments at the same time, percussion shaking away, and lyrics that sound playful - 'I'm such a tease and your such a flirt' - but develop into something far darker by the track's end when Yorke threatens to 'Drug and kill you.'
Feral sees all those dance music influences come to the fore, an instrumental piece with the occasional vocal contribution from Yorke, his voice as much an instrument as any other, there to be manipulated and played with. It's the kind of track that is easy to dismiss but would probably be celebrated if produced by a recognised electronic act. The first (and presumably only) single from the album is Lotus Flower, whose video showcasing Thom Yorke's dance moves has already produced more than a couple of parodies. However you feel about the dancing there is something distinctly sexy about this song and that's something I never expected to say about a Radiohead track. Give it to Rhianna and change the production and you've got yourself a sultry pop hit I reckon (I'll at least predict some band covering it in the near future). In Radiohead's hands it has strong rhythm, scattered electronic beats, handclaps, guitars, keyboards and that familiar vocal tone that chills and warms at the same time - 'There's an empty space inside my heart/And it won't take root/Tonight I'll set you free/I'll set you free/Slowly we unfurl/As lotus flowers
Codex is in the same style as album classics like Exit Music and Pyramid Song but whilst I found myself immediately soothed by its piano, vocals and brass I'm not sure it quite measures up to those others I've mentioned. This is to harshly criticise a lovely track in comparison to others but there's no point in being less than honest about these things. Give Up The Ghost sees the band inhabiting the area filled recently by Fleet Foxes and by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young a long time before that. Harmonised vocals sing plaintively of lost hope against a background of acoustic guitar and birdsong. One for the campfire. Seperator's steady rhythm is a skeleton on which several layers are built. Yorke's vocals conjure that feeling - 'It's like I'm falling out of bed/From a long and weary dream' - before backing vocals join him along with lightly picked guitars and moaning keyboards; the layers reverb into each other increasing that dream-like feel as Yorke calls out 'Wake me up.'
We were the ones caught napping though. Away from the excitement of the next big things and the latest disposable pop sensation Radiohead have crafted another collection of mature songs; dense, interesting and likely to come down off the shelf more than a handful of times (or the digital download equivalent).