A Moon Shaped Pool, the Radiohead album that appeared yesterday after a brief and cryptic lead-up, is one of the most intricately stitched together albums they’ve ever made. Which is saying something. There’s a lot to unpack here.
Of course, we can already tell it’s a beautiful and mournful album that’s much better than we have any right to expect from any band that’s been doing this for more than 20 years, but it’s a bit too soon say much more than it’s obviously better than King of Limbs. Let us take a moment and breathe before we start throwing around sentences like “Better than In Rainbows and Amnesiac but a notch below The Bends.” But if we need to spend more time appreciating every finely plucked string, sighing sine wave and Thom Yorke warble, we can still rejoice, for after all this time, Radiohead finally did it.
Last week, Radiohead pulled one of the most counterintuitive but oddly effective publicity stunts in recent memory by slowly deleting their web presence until all that was left was a barren Twitter account and a white page where Radiohead.com once sat. It was an odd way to get the fans hyped up, but it worked. So, of course, Google had to go and screw everything up.
Radiohead announced that their new album would go on sale at 2pm on Sunday, May 9th. No album title, track listing or news of a Beyoncé duet accompanied the news. But then someone at Google Play had too good of a time at brunch and started offering the album a few hours early. The mistake was quickly caught and fixed, but it was too late. The track list had leaked, and Radiohead fans, an excitable group on a normal day, just straight up lost it. Radiohead were finally about to release “True Love Waits.”
Every major rock artist that’s been around long enough to have a legacy has a “True Love Waits.” Pearl Jam has one. Ryan Adam has one. Prince has at least 10 of them. Neil Young might have him beat. It’s the song that fans whisper about, that appears on bootlegs and YouTube videos, but that never makes its way onto a proper album, for whatever “I am an artist and I have to be difficult about things” reason. Sometimes, it’s best if the song remains lost and amorphous, as the finalized version can’t live up to the platonic level that exists in fans’ heads. Bruce Springsteen has been performing the anti-police brutality barnburner “American Skin (41 Shots)” since 2000. The version on the Live in New York City album destroys. The studio recording included on 2014’s High Hopes is overproduced and lifeless in comparison.
But sometimes, the finalized version is worth the wait. And what a wait it’s been: “True Love Waits” is old enough to drink in America. The song was first performed in 1995 as part of The Bends tour, and it became an immediate fan favorite. In those early days, it was performed solo by Yorke. For a band that sometimes gets accused of being fussy, over-intellectual and cold, “True Love Waits” is a revelation and a counter-argument: just some simply strummed chords and Yorke nakedly pleading “just don’t leave.” This song has one of the loveliest melodies in the Radiohead catalog and oddly affecting lyrics like “true love lives on lollipops and crisps.” It’s weird and a bit sinister, but it’s also the closest this band has ever come to being sweet. The song is treasured by hardcore fans, because they get to feel like only they get to know this side of the band exists.
But while the fans loved the aching vulnerability, Radiohead never quite seemed comfortable with the song. Perhaps it came off as a bit simplistic and at odds with their aesthetic. They attempted to record it during the Kid A/Amnesiac sessions, but they weren’t happy with the results. Producer Nigel Godrich told Rolling Stone “We tried to record it countless times, but it never worked. We could do ‘True Love Waits’ and make it sound like John Mayer. Nobody wants to do that.”
Still, the band knew there was something special here, so they released it as the last track on 2001 live EP I Might Be Wrong. A live EP is about as “fans only” as a release can get, but the version included is sparse and chilling and worth seeking out, with Yorke’s voice transmitting a world of dread and ache. If this had been the only version the band ever saw fit to release, it would have been enough. (In recent years, the band has performed the song with Yorke on keys, usually as an intro to the set-closer “Everything In Its Right Place.”)
Radiohead had been road-testing much of A Moon Shaped Pool for years. Snippets of “Burn the Witch” were first played in 2006, “Identikit” was a staple of the King of Limbs tour and “Present Tense,” “Ful Stop” and an early version of “The Numbers” have all been played by Yorke solo or the group before. The band will doggedly revise a song until it achieves their exacting standards of perfection, be it emotional truthfulness or purity of arrangement or some other ineffable quality that only a Greenwood could understand. (And sometimes, it should be said, they go a bit far. Hardcore fans still bitch that the version of “Videotape” that made it onto In Rainbows doesn’t have the dramatic outro the live version does.) And after 21 years, Radiohead finally found a version of “True Love Waits” that they are happy with. The guitar has been swapped out for a simple, repeating piano part and a few simple keyboard whispers. Yorke sounds more comfortable with straightforward emotion and melody than he has in while. If he ever used to feel embarrassed about the song, that self-consciousness is gone. Here he sounds like a man who needs to connect.
It’s a stunning moment on an album filled with them, and more proof that for all their web-based publicity gambit prowess, Radiohead’s best surprises still come out in their music.
Well done, gentlemen. Now get to work on a proper version of "Lift.“