“Don’t leave, don’t leave.” That coda, love’s last gasp, has held a special place in the hearts of Radiohead fans. It is the band’s curious essence distilled—god’s lonely man, crushed by the weight of industry and innovation, yearning for embrace. “True Love Waits” has, if guitarist Ed O’Brien’s online diary is to be believed, been in the band’s repertoire since 1995. A stripped-down acoustic version made it onto their 2001 live album I Might Be Wrong. But as beloved as it was by fans, it had become an albatross around the group’s neck.“We tried to record it countless times, but it never worked,” producer Nigel Godrich told Rolling Stone in 2012. “The irony is you have that shitty live version [on I Might Be Wrong]. To Thom’s credit, he needs to feel a song has validation, that it has a reason to exist as a recording.”
The song, ironically titled after the Christian abstinence group of the same name, is a clever mélange of Biblical imagery (“wash your swollen feet”) and ghost stories, with the lines “true love waits in haunted attics, and true love waits on lollipops and crisps” inspired by a newspaper story frontman Thom Yorke read about a young boy locked in the attic by his father, and forced to survive for a week on snacks. It could be read as a metaphor for abandonment, for how “powerless” Yorke says he felt as a boy growing up under Thatcher, and how—like the baby’s cries at the end of “Kid A” and the “God loves his children” line closing out “Paranoid Android”—we are all forgotten kids trapped in an attic.
That Yorke, 47, has finally deemed it the right time to release a studio recording of “True Love Waits,” and to have it serve as the album-closer to Radiohead’s ninth studio LP, A Moon Shaped Pool, seems fitting given recent developments in his life. Back in August, Yorke publicly announced he’d split from his partner of 23 years, Rachel Owen, a printmaker whom he met while attending the University of Exeter. They have two children together.
“Rachel and I have separated,” read a statement from Yorke. “After 23 highly creative and happy years, for various reasons we have gone our separate ways. It’s perfectly amicable and has been common knowledge for some time.”
Despite the ever-present current of existential dread that runs through every Radiohead album, it’s hard not to view Pool as a rumination on Yorke’s failed relationship. While several of the tracks have cropped up in Radiohead live sets for some time, such as “Identikit,” “Ful Stop,” and “Present Tense,” which Yorke premiered as a solo tune at the 2009 Latitude Festival, the decision to include them in this project, which was largely recorded in the fall following the separation announcement, speaks volumes.
On “Daydreaming,” a rippling piano line gives way to somber synths and strings, as Yorke croons, “And it’s too late… the damage is done, the damage is done,” before closing by repeating the phrase “efil ym fo flaH,” which read backwards translates to “Half of my life” (Yorke was 46 when he split from Owen last year). It’s as if Sigur Rós’s “Hoppípolla” took a double-dose of Zoloft. “Decks Dark,” with its flurry of minor chords and ethereal chorus reminiscent of “Paranoid Android,” ends with Yorke repeatedly mumbling, “Have you had enough of me?”, while “Ful Stop,” with its Kraftwerk-esque beat, portentous synths, and layered guitars, is a Lynchian nightmare of a track that sees Yorke pleading “Take me back again” over and over. And one of the album highlights, the appropriately named “Identikit,” is about losing your own identity in a relationship, with Yorke singing “When I see you messing me around, I don’t want to know,” complemented by lo-fi beats and Foals-ish, angular guitars.
A Moon Shaped Pool is also Radiohead’s most cohesive work since 2003’s Hail to the Thief, thanks in no small part to Jonny Greenwood’s orchestral arrangements throughout. The movie soundtrack maestro has once again teamed up with the London Contemporary Orchestra, who collaborated with him on the score to Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, to layer nearly every track with inventive string arrangements. (This already-poignant album is going to sound majestic backed by a live orchestra.) The tone is set from the get-go with “Burn the Witch,” a track mentioned in the booklet to Hail to the Thief. Yorke’s euphonious wailing floats over Greenwood’s frenetic string section, recalling his score to There Will Be Blood. The song’s lyrics of paranoia and persecution, including the line “red crosses on wooden doors,” suggest a condemnation of the Islamophobia that’s plagued the post-9/11 West.
There are other heady topics addressed here as well, including on two tracks—“Desert Island Disk” and “The Numbers”—that were first performed last year by Yorke at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. The former, named after the BBC Radio talk show Desert Island Discs, where celebs must choose eight songs they’d take with them to a desert island, seems to be a sly reference to U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, who once chose their “Fake Plastic Trees” as one of his desert island tunes—which prompted Yorke to warn he’d “sue the living shit” out of Cameron if he used the band’s music during his re-election campaign. Yorke sings of how “different types of love are possible,” perhaps chiding the PM for his sometimes less-than-inclusive rhetoric. And “The Numbers,” with a guitar line similar to “Talk Show Host,” is a full-blown climate change anthem: “We call upon the people, people have this power, the numbers don’t decide, your system is a lie, the river running dry.”
Radiohead’s biggest strength has always been their unity of vision, with each album cinematic in scope. That was lost with their last album, 2011’s King of Limbs, which, despite its occasional bursts of beauty, ultimately felt fragmented. And it flopped by their standards, selling just 307,000 copies in the U.S.—the first Radiohead album that failed to reach gold status. Unlike the PR-less Limbs, the Brits have launched an intriguing campaign around Pool, first wiping their social media accounts then sending out a cryptic mailer to their fans: a leaflet reading, “Sing the song of sixpence that goes BURN THE WITCH we know where you live,” with an embossed band logo. So when Yorke sings, “Don’t leave, don’t leave,” perhaps he’s also asking us, his admirers, to stay with him, too.
Don’t worry, Thom—with music as elegant and elegiac as this, we’re not going anywhere.