True Love Waits

Many words will be written about the new Radiohead album. Many words have already been written, but none matter too much. It takes time to sit with a Radiohead album before adequately judging it.

But I do want to write a few words about “True Love Waits” because I have sat with this particular song for the better part of two decades. It was written in the 90s, recorded live in the early 2000s and finally released on an album in the 2010s (or whatever we call this unwieldy decade).

When a band is influential and sticks around long enough, it’s likely there are millions of people who can and do meter their lives by that band’s albums. If you grew up in the 60s and 70s, you might remember where you were at in life with The Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed verses Some Girls. The same is true of Radiohead for us 90s kids.

What’s unique to Radiohead, though, is that loyal fans can also mark the passage of time through songs that are demoed, performed live and eventually released on albums. The band has such a surplus of material that it can somehow afford to hold and tinker with it for years. (To offer another example: The song “Nude,” my favorite from the band’s 2007 album In Rainbows, was written a decade earlier.)

When the live recording of “True Love Waits” first dropped, I was in high school. More to the point: I was a brooding, petulant teenager pretending to lofty existential and romantic angst but really just bored, hormonal and insecure. This song fit nicely with that mood. The lyrics, like many Radiohead lyrics, were ambiguous or just weird enough to gnaw out some meaning.

I’m not living, I’m just killing time,” Thom Yorke sang in the most quoted line from the song and damn if I didn’t feel the same way. I was an only child, a lonely child, with too much time to myself in my attic bedroom. “True love waits in haunted attics.” I didn’t have enough clarity yet to pinpoint passions, but I always yearned for companionship and purpose. “Don’t leave,” he sings again and again. “Don’t leave.” Aimless but ambitious — for love and life — these lines hit me like a sucker punch. The original music, a raw acoustic guitar and wailing vocals, only added to the blow.

That feeling subsided a couple years later as I headed off to college. I strummed the chords occasionally on my acoustic guitar when nothing else came to mind or listened to Christopher O’Riley’s 2003 piano rendition of the song when I wanted classical music in the background for schoolwork. Mostly the song disappeared from memory, a relic of a more immature state of mind.

Then Sunday night I queued up the long awaited new Radiohead album and saw the familiar title of the last song. The musical arrangement is closer to O’Riley’s version, though far more haunting. The acoustic guitar is gone, as is the brute force singing. The music and vocals tumble feebly, barely arriving in time. The lyrics are the same, but the packaging has changed — and so have I.

After not listening to it for years, I’m gut-punched again by the song in a whole new way. “True love waits in haunted attics.” All I can think about is going through the attic with my dad after my mom died, trying to figure out whether we can hold on to her memory and do right by her without holding on to all her possessions. “I’m not living, I’m just killing time.” Unlike years ago, I hear this and think not of myself, but of my mom’s mother, who is unable to move forward with her life. As though any change would confuse the ghosts she wants to live alongside. She is not living anymore, she is simply killing time. Because true love, as she understands it, waits. My dad and I have taken different paths.

“I’ll drown my beliefs to have your babies.” I remember scoffing at the desperation of this opening line. I would never! But now, seven months into my new life as a married man, I hear traces of what many know: you must demote some portion of your self-interest to fuse with another person. Some days, in tense moments, you demote more. Because the greatest fear in my life now isn’t an inability to find love and purpose, as it once was, but losing it and having to learn to live without it all over again.

Don’t leave.

Don’t leave.