A new Radiohead song called “These Are My Twisted Words” seemingly fell out of the sky late last week, making the rounds on various torrent sites and Internet forums. As is the norm whenever Radiohead does anything of the slightest significance, the online rumor mill went into overdrive. Was this song an outtake from a previous album? Was it part of a new EP that would be announced on Monday, as hinted by a cryptic note that accompanied the leak? Or was it Thom Yorke’s rumored contribution to the new Twilight movie? Well, a brief post to the band’s official website this morning confirmed the answer to be “none of the above.”
As it turns out, Yorke was being serious last week when he told The Believer that Radiohead would not be making any kind of full-length albums for the foreseeable future. It would seem that “Twisted Words” is the first of many single tracks that the band will simply release when they are finished. As such, we can’t look at this song the way we would look at a normal one-off “throwaway” song. As far as we know, this is the way Radiohead operates now.
At first I was completely against this idea. How could anybody not be? Radiohead makes albums, not singles. Not only that, but they are coming off one of the most impressive winning streaks in rock history. These are the last six Radiohead albums: The Bends, OK Computer, Kid A, Amnesiac, Hail to the Thief, and In Rainbows. Think about that for a second. Is there any argument that can be made for that run of albums not ranking with Bowie’s ‘70s output, the Who’s albums from The Who Sell Out through Quadrophenia, or the first four Talking Heads records? And now we’re supposed to believe that Radiohead is a singles band all of a sudden? Preposterous!
Or is it? After all, this isn’t a new idea. In the 1960s and ‘70s, plenty of bands seemingly led double existences as hitmakers and “artists” making cohesive, complete albums. From Rubber Soul on, the Beatles specialized in making full-length LPs that pushed the boundaries of rock n’ roll as a legitimate art form but somehow did not include any of the following songs: “Day Tripper,” “We Can Work it Out,” “Paperback Writer,” “Rain,” “Hey Jude,” “Revolution,” “Don’t Let Me Down.” These singles were standalone releases that were anticipated and then celebrated nearly as much as the Beatles’ albums. The Who and the Rolling Stones also had extensive catalogs of singles that existed as separate entities from their LPs. This even continued into the 1980s—what Smiths fan wouldn’t put Louder Than Bombs up there with any of the group’s studio albums?
Maybe it was just a product of the CD replacing vinyl as the dominant format, but somewhere between the late ‘80s and the early ‘90s, the single stopped being a viable medium for so-called “serious” rock bands. Even a few years ago before people stopped buying music entirely, when was the last time you or anybody you know bought a CD single? The digital revolution brought back the single in the worlds of pop and hip-hop, but not so much in rock. Sure, bands release singles in advance of an album, but these days that’s just another word for “the song from the album that the record label thinks will help sell the most albums.”
A band with a Radiohead-level reputation making a conscious shift towards releasing singles with their own artwork and no album tie-ins is potentially game-changing. I’ve always been the kind of person who tends to get far less excited about a new song by a band I like when it isn’t part of an album. Radiohead has plenty of B-sides and non-album tracks, but I haven’t listened to most of then nearly as extensively as I have their albums. Now I’m faced with the reality that “new Radiohead” for the next couple of years at least is going to mean new songs when they’re finished. It is entirely possible that “These Are My Twisted Words” is kicking off a run of killer singles that will collectively define the period of Radiohead’s career between In Rainbows and the next time they decide to commit to a full-length album. And in much the same way that In Rainbows’ unconventional release launched a flurry of bands offering variations on the pay-what-you-want formula, Radiohead might have just made it acceptable for “legitimate” rock bands to release singles as standalone artistic statements. And I’m pretty okay with that.