This is the eleventh and last in a series of posts that look at individual tracks on Radiohead’s 2016 album A Moon Shaped Pool.
After the self-loathing breakthrough of “Tinker, Tailor,” the last place you’d expect A Moon Shaped Pool to end up is a twenty year old song famous for never being on an album. But that’s where we are with “True Love Waits.”
Easily the most achingly sad work in Radiohead’s repertoire, the song has been celebrated in its previous live incarnation, anchoring the live album I Might Be Wrong and appearing as the title track of Christopher O’Riley’s first album of Radiohead transcriptions. But it’s never been heard like this. Like the O’Riley version, this version of the song eschews the acoustic guitar that accompanied the original version of the song for piano; but unlike the O’Riley version, which tends like all his early Radiohead arrangements toward busy fills, this version strips everything back: a single echoing piano line that wouldn’t be out of place on a Brian Eno/Harold Budd ambient album, supplemented by a two-note bass pattern and some higher piano excursions high and distant, supporting the voice of Yorke’s narrator.
A narrator trapped. The piece lays bare the tragedy of the album as a whole, for Yorke’s narrator cannot embrace the epiphany and self-discovery he’s found. He is left with the realization that he’s “not living / I’m just killing time,” but he cannot bring himself to let go of his former love either. He pleads, “Don’t leave,” even as the relationship is destroying him. Like a frame of 8mm film stuck in front of a lens—pictured on the cover of the album?—he is caught, immobile, and being slowly destroyed. It’s gorgeous desolation, but it’s desolation nonetheless.
It would have been easy for Radiohead to close this album in a happy place. By depicting the awful finality of Yorke’s narrator’s dilemma, they’ve done something more honest and created a portrait of self destruction on the smallest, most intimate scale possible.