For years, Radiohead left “True Love Waits” — one of its most beautiful, heartbreaking love songs — cast adrift. A live staple since the mid ’90s, an acoustic concert recording of the song appeared on the 2001 EP, I Might Be Wrong, but a finished version of the tune never made it onto any of the band’s proper albums.
As the track’s title promises, however, a beguiling new take on “True Love Waits” finally finds its place as the closing missive on the British quintet’s highly anticipated new release, A Moon Shaped Pool. It’s the perfect home.
Five years in the making, Radiohead’s ninth album catches the band in a deeply reflective mood — about the state of the world, yes, but more so about the state of the self, coming after the implosion of singer Thom Yorke’s long-term relationship with Rachel Owen, with whom he has two children. Having met at the University of Exeter, the couple were together for 23 years, or as the 47-year-old frontman puts it in the backward masked fade out to the warped lullaby “Daydreaming”: “Half my life, half my life… ”
In a press release issued at the time of the separation, Yorke insisted the split was “perfectly amicable.” Sifting through the ruins on A Moon Shaped Pool suggests otherwise. “It’s too late, the damage is done/The damage is done,” goes the song’s main refrain (the band would be aghast at the suggestion that it was an actual chorus).
If Yorke was in a dark place before, now he’s at one with the gloom.
“True Love Waits,” meanwhile, comes to life in ghostly form, with the guitars of past renditions discarded in favor of a distant piano cacophony weaving through the Yorke’s wounded falsetto verses, which suddenly take on real life intimacy: “I’m not living, I’m just killing time/Your tiny hands, your crazy kitten smile/Just don’t leave/Don’t leave.”
It’s a good thing the band saves it for the end of the album, otherwise fans wouldn’t hear anything that comes after it through the tears and wailing.
A Moon Shaped Pool represents a markedly different kind of album for Radiohead
Radiohead –- Yorke, guitarists Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien, bassist Colin Greenwood and drummer Philip Selway — also revive a few other songs that it has been kicking around for a while, including “Identikit” and “Present Tense.” The latter almost serves as a bridge to the band’s past work –- and maybe Yorke’s past life –- echoing deep cuts on 2001’s Amnesiac in its layered, swirling arrangement while the singer hums, “As my world comes crashing down/I’ll be dancing, freaking out.”
Apart from Radiohead’s breakthrough first single, 1992’s “Creep” — “But I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo/What the hell am I doing here?/I don’t belong here” — it’s hard to remember a time when Yorke sounded as vulnerable as he does here.
When Radiohead first emerged, it sounded wholly derivative of its time –- borrowing Suede’s thrift shop glamor and Pixies loud-quiet-loud dynamic. Barring the hit, the first album, 1993’s Pablo Honey was a dud. Still, Radiohead quickly evolved into something far more interesting than its influences, with 1995’s The Bends offering more substantial fare with songs like “High and Dry” and “Fake Plastic Trees,” and 1997’s OK Computer signaled a complete artistic rebirth that pushed the band to the front of the Brit pop pack in terms of innovation and ambition.
The band has spent the last two decades blazing forward, experimenting willfully and kicking against its past, with each successive album pushing its sound further out while solidifying Radiohead’s reputation as risk takers and tastemakers. In the process, the people behind the band became increasingly blurred –- mere fragments in the overall wall of noise.
Musically, A Moon Shaped Pool, produced by Nigel Godrich, moves dramatically away from its glitchy predecessor, 2011’s The King of Limbs. During the band’s time out of the spotlight, Yorke experimented with loose electronic jams with his side project Atoms For Peace while Jonny Greenwood composed award winning scores for motion pictures such as “There Will Be Blood” and “Inherent Vice.” Both of those endeavors seem to shape the band’s newly finished product.
Superstars like Beyonce, James Blake and Drake have adopted Radiohead’s hit-and-run release model with their new albums, all with spectacular success
While embracing many of the band’s signature moves –- the delicate balance between electronic and organic, cinematic arrangements, a certain aloofness in its production –- A Moon Shaped Pool also represents a markedly different kind of album for Radiohead. Like Wilco dropped its guard with 2015’s Star Wars and Beck suddenly revealed himself to the world with 2002’s Sea Change, there is a distinct lack of pretense on this album.
On the gorgeous “Decks Dark,” Yorke intones over its clipped rhythms and ominous choir of voices, “In any old life there comes a darkness/There’s a spacecraft blocking out the sky/And there’s no way out/You look back and you cover your ears/But it’s the loudest sound you’ve ever heard.”
“Desert Island Disk” almost sounds like a Nick Drake folk lament, albeit with the usual Radiohead studio flourishes, in which Yorke seems to find comfort in his isolation: “Through an open doorway/Across a street/To another life.”
Following the lead of 2007’s surprise release, In Rainbows — which the band slipped out with virtually no notice, no buildup — A Moon Shaped Pool came as a surprise to fans, appearing just days after the band premiered two new songs after a brief, self-imposed Internet blackout. In the past few weeks, superstars like Beyonce, James Blake and Drake have adopted Radiohead’s hit-and-run release model with their new albums, all with spectacular success.
Of the two new songs released prior to the full album, Radiohead fired a warning shot with “Burn the Witch” that serves as the new album’s tense opening track and comes accompanied with a sinister stop-motion video inspired by The Wicker Man that in its own abstract way seems to find Radiohead fretting over the possible outcome of America’s presidential election.
It may have been a red herring for the intensely private Yorke and company, but the A Moon Shaped Pool does occasionally find the band looking out, returning to its habit of wringing hands over the ills of the world. On the psychedelic hued “The Numbers,” which lops forward over a ’60s style guitar jangle and swell of strings, the singer croons, “We are of the Earth/To her we do return.”
A better indicator of what the band had in store here came with its unused James Bond theme song, “Spectre,” (not included here) which Radiohead released for free online in December after the filmmakers decided to go with a number by Sam Smith instead. The sweeping, sweet, downcast tone of that tune echoes through an album that never quite jars the senses in the same way as 1997’s Kid A or 2003’s Hail to the Thief.
The closest the band comes to that is on –- take a deep breath –- “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief” where, toward the end, the quiet sway of strings and jazz rhythms suddenly grows more and more claustrophobic, as if the song is turning on the listener. The last 40 seconds play out as pure distortion, as if Trent Reznor burst into the control room and took over the mixing desk. The song is already a prominent fan favorite.
Radiohead is set to appear at several festivals this summer, including Lollapalooza, Outside Lands and Austin City Limits. What will be interesting to watch is how the hushed, confessional songs from A Moon Shaped Pool find their place alongside the older material, especially in vast outdoor settings. It’s a unique challenge because Radiohead, always considered a headphone band, goes straight for the heart with this time.