Radiohead’s new album, A Moon Shaped Pool, was released Sunday, and fans were thrilled to discover an unexpected and very welcome final track. More than 20 years after performing it for the first time at the Luna Theater in Brussels in 1995, they’ve finally released a studio version of “True Love Waits,” the most-requested and least-played song in their repertoire. According to setlist.fm, Radiohead has played the song live a grand total of 20 times in their career (versus 407 performances of “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” from The Bends). That means statistically, buying a ticket to a Radiohead concert meant a fan was only slightly more likely to hear “True Love Waits” than to hear them cover Carly Simon’s The Spy Who Loved Me Bond theme “Nobody Does It Better” (16 performances!).
But despite being rarely performed, it’s long been a fan favorite. For one thing, it’s the closest thing Radiohead has to a love song, although with sadly abject lyrics like “I’ll drown my beliefs to have your babies/ I’ll dress like your niece, I’ll wash your swollen feet/ just don’t leave,” it’s a very Radiohead-style love song. But besides its strange thematic place in their catalog, it’s also a musical standout. It became well-known around 2000, when the band was touring to support Kid A and Amnesiac. I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings, the live album from that tour, contains the only officially released version of the song prior to Sunday (it closes that album, as well), and it’s an oddity in the context of the swirling electronic orchestration that was Radiohead’s stock-in-trade at the time. The version on I Might Be Wrong is just Thom Yorke playing solo on an acoustic guitar, with easily identifiable chords and nothing particularly experimental about it. Perhaps for that reason, the band seems to not have been particularly fond of that recording. Their studio co-producer Nigel Godrich called it “that shitty live version,” in a Rolling Stone interview, in which he explained why there’s been no studio recording until now:
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.
So what gives A Moon Shaped Pool’s version of “True Love Waits” reason to exist as a recording? Rather than adding orchestration, Yorke managed to find a way to subtract further from a song that was already pretty bare to begin with. The guitar is replaced by piano, the propulsive rhythm replaced with a dreamy, sustain-pedal-heavy minimalism. The underlying chords are barely hinted at in the three-note piano arpeggios—through clever voicing, Yorke manages to represent the first two underlying chords with the same notes, cutting the verse from four (audible) chords to three. A very softly mixed second piano line dances around the sharp hammer-ons and pull-offs that define the guitar version, hitting the same notes from time to time but mostly just layering over the melody. The effect is paradoxical, a lovely mix of sparse instrumentation and a reverberating sound that couldn’t be lusher. The result is a version that honors the song’s simplicity while simultaneously having touches of the elaborate soundscapes that have defined the band since Kid A. It may have taken Radiohead 20 years to get “True Love Waits” right, but the wait was worth it.