Did A Broken Heart Lead Radiohead's Thom Yorke to Finally Record "True Love Waits"?
This Sunday, Radiohead released their long-awaited ninth album A Moon Shaped Pool, and die-hard fans have been quick to point out how many of its songs we've heard before.
"Identikit" and "Ful Stop" were regularly performed on their King of Limbs tour in 2012, while "Present Tense" dates back to 2008 and "Burn the Witch" to 2000. But those legacies pale in comparison to that of the album's heartbreaking closer "True Love Waits," which the band first performed way back in 1995. Here's what happened over those 21 years.
Radiohead first performed "True Love Waits" in in Brussels on December 5, 1995, while the band was touring for The Bends. The arrangement primarily featured Thom Yorke playing the piece alone on the acoustic guitar, with keyboard accompaniment joining for the latter half. It's a fitting style for such an earnest, simple, lonely song, right in line with the band's similar work at the time on songs like "Fake Plastic Trees" and "Bullet Proof ... I Wish I Was." The band wouldn't perform the song live again for another five years.
During the sessions for Kid A and Amnesiac, the band attempted to record the song but ultimately scrapped the efforts. The band's producer Nigel Godrich commented in 2012, "We tried to record it countless times, but it never worked. ... To Thom's credit, he needs to feel a song has validation, that it has a reason to exist as a recording. We could do 'True Love Waits' and make it sound like John Mayer. Nobody wants to do that."
It's a surprising comparison - sure "True Love Waits" might be the band's most vulnerable and direct song ever, to the point where it might come off cheesy or saccharine in inexperienced hands, but not likely from the folks who made "Fitter Happier."
Regardless of these difficulties in the studio, the song saw its first official release on the live EP I Might Be Wrong in 2001. The stripped-down performance resembles the original Brussels take, with the keyboards removed and the second and third verses swapped.
Radiohead continued to perform the song in this form through their 2003 tour, but something changed in 2006, when the band began using the song as an intro for "Everything In Its Right Place." In this version, Yorke ditched the guitar in favor of sparse ambient electric piano, and while the vocal performance remains more or less the same, Jonny Greenwood began sampling and distorting the vocals live, not unlike the song it precedes. This is a looser, lighter take on "True Love Waits," one without the clear chord changes and forceful desperation of the acoustic version, one that somehow emphasizes the romantic quality of the lyrics rather than the loneliness. Radiohead would alternate between this version and various covers of songs like Bjork's "Unravel" and R.E.M.'s "The One I Love" to lead into "Everything In Its Right Place" through 2012.
The studio version that finally appears on A Moon Shaped Pool, now streaming on Apple Music and Tidal, sits somewhere in between the original acoustic version and this electric twist. The chord changes return, but now performed by piano, and with small additions throughout the piece that give it a renewed sense of momentum — a second, higher, more chaotic piano part after the first chorus, a blast of bass in the second verse, a crooked diddly that repeats for the latter half of the song. As such, it manages to capture what worked best about both versions - it remains the most straightforward, unpretentious, and emotionally raw composition on the album, but the nuances of this arrangement rob it of any potential sap.
But why now? What "reason to exist as a recording" does the song have today that it never did before? Perhaps this makes too many assumptions, but it's hard to ignore the fact that in 2015, Thom Yorke separated with Rachel Owen, his partner of 23 years and the mother of his two children. Yorke would have written the song shortly after meeting her, and at the time, his performance of it had a hopeful, proud character through the pained lyrics. But on A Moon Shaped Heart, he sounds resigned, isolated, lost. All this time later, the same song can apply to the same relationship, but in an entirely different light. "Don't leave," Yorke called out over and over again for 21 years, but at this point, she's already left.
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