‘True Love Waits’ Illuminates Radiohead’s Mysterious Creative Process

After a week of cryptic teases, Radiohead's A Moon Shaped Pool dropped on May 8.
After a week of cryptic teases, Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool dropped on May 8.

The last few weeks have been a bit nuts for surprise album releases from music’s biggest names: Beyonce’s Lemonade, Drakes’ Views, James Blake’s The Colour In Anything. And that’s not even counting sudden releases a few months ago from Rihanna and Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West. So yeah, it’s already been a busy winter and spring.

As if that wasn’t enough, Radiohead then dropped hints of a new something, first by sending cryptic mailers to anyone on their UK mailing list — hinting at the a song “Burn The Witch” and a data privacy-alluding tagline “We know where you live” — and then removing all traces of content from the band’s internet presence and social media. Considering fans knew Radiohead had been working on and off on new music, plus a looming tour this summer, clearly something was happening soon. And then, Radiohead dropped a few breadcrumbs in the form of video teasers on Instagram. And later, the first full song and music video for “Burn The Witch,”

A few days later, they dropped “Daydreaming,” which coupled with a breathtaking short film video by director Paul Thomas Anderson.

Then, the new album dropped on Sunday at 2 p.m. and people like me threw away the rest of the weekend to download and listen.

There’s much to discuss and unpack with A Moon Shaped Pool, but after a few days I’ve yet to wrap my head around what Radiohead is doing. I’m sure there’s more thoughts to come about the band and its frequently evolving sounds and shapeshifting ambitions and themes.

Over at NPR Music, the staff was practically all hands on deck, listening to the record at the same time, and each jotting down some loose first reactions to the music, the moods and more. It was a ton of fun to be able be part of the genre-diverse array of writers and critics and producers and editors from the site, all coming together to weigh in from their various areas of expertise. So go check that out.

My short contribution about “True Love Waits” is there as well. And below, I have a longer version fleshes out a little bit of what I’m getting at. It’s messy and unedited and likely rambling, but putting it here for posterity.

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By the time Kanye’s The Life Of Pablo was available on Tidal, he was already obsessively reworking several of the album’s songs, which for many, raised the question about the elasticity of a song’s “completeness” in the world of streaming. It was also a fascinating window into Kanye’s unfettered work ethic in real time.

That immediately sprung to mind when I saw the tracklist for Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool, and its inclusion of so many familiar songs that had been played in some capacity previously: “Desert Island Disk,” “The Present Tense” and “The Numbers” (previously known as “Silent Spring”) all were debuted here and there and then somewhat forgotten — breadcrumbs in the form of fan-made concert clips on YouTube. Others like “Ful Stop” and “Identikit” were played numerous times on the previous 2012 tour.

Even parts of “Burn The Witch” had been teased out for a long time.

But most surprisingly is “True Love Waits,” a simple but stirring acoustic guitar that’s been a fan favorite live staple in the band’s sprawling back catalog for more than 20 years — since the days of The Bends and OK Computer. Outside of widely-spread concert bootlegs, the song’s sole appearance is on 2001’s live EP I Might Be Wrong.

If fans were clamoring for Radiohead’s early stuff, maybe the band was too?

Instead, the final track on this long-gestating and brilliant album was not only worth the wait, but offered a look into Radiohead’s mysterious creative process. In its new iteration, Radiohead reimagines “True Love Waits” as a gorgeous and somber ballad, constructed from a minimalist repeated four-note piano figure that poly-rhythmically cycles through the progression as if implying where the guitar strums used to be. Slowly, piano counter melodies, shimmering little sonics and ghostly strings begin to bloom in the corners of the mix while Yorke sings “Don’t leave…” It’s a stunning and moving final statement to close out an album that so masterfully blends politics and personal tragedy.

More than most bands, there’s always been an almost perceived mystical aura to Radiohead’s process. Even I’ve imagined Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood and the band hunkering down in secrecy with producer Nigel Godrich, conjuring new sounds from the nothingness of space like mad scientist wizards, and then surprise-dropping the results fully-formed. In reality, Radiohead or Thom Yorke, has frequently made it a practice to debut new material well before they hit the studio. In 2006, the band road-tested the songs like “House Of Cards” and “Nude” (a song almost as mature as “True Love Waits”) that eventually comprised much of In Rainbows more than a year later.

The problem with romanticizing the process as little more than intangible inspiration is that it makes music creation at that level unattainable and unapproachable. For those waiting around to be struck by the perfect groundbreaking idea that compares with our musical heroes — or for that matter, writers, filmmakers, architects, painters, whatever — it will never come. The most creatively productive are those that keep working and chugging along through the tough moments when there’s nothing worthwhile coming out; fixing troublesome spots, exploring and shelving ideas to revisit again later, or incorporate into something else entirely. You won’t have a good idea if you wait around for it, but if you structure the work to make something everyday, when the inspiration does strike, you’re actually in the right headspace and have built the structure to know what to do with that idea before it fades away.

Radiohead performing its songs well before they’re “ready” allows us the chance to see the band’s seams, and understand how they do what they do; in that regard, it becomes — even on some small level — something we can do too. That makes the band refreshingly more approachable, if not fully relatable. It also demonstrates an elasticity to any idea — nothing is fully formed and can be explored and interrogated until it finally seems done.

What this means is that the band has time and again put in the time to explore the best manifestation of these songs — first building up the progressions and melodies, honing the lyrics, and then deconstructing in order to best fit the tonalities and themes of the latest album.

It’s possible some may decry the new version of “True Love Waits” as unnecessary George Lucas-grade retconning of something they love already; maybe it’s not the “real” version to them. But that’s okay: that earlier version is still lingering out there. To me, the ability to hear Radiohead retrofit an older song methodically over two decades actually makes the band to feel refreshingly human: They’re not aliens sent from the future to bestow its latest masterpiece (as far as I know?), but rather, artists who, like the rest of us, slave over their craft with deliberate thought to not settle on an untouchable first draft. For a band as consistently innovative and enigmatic, that illuminating glimpse is incredibly valuable.

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