On December 5th, 1995, a scrawny, young, Tiger Beat blond Thom Yorke took the stage at La Luna Theater in Brussels, Belgium. Beside him stood Johnny and Colin Greenwood, Phil Selway and Ed O’Brian. Together they formed Radiohead and on a cold night in Belgium their lead singer was going to debut one of the most interesting songs in music history.
Radiohead formed in the late 80s in England, and after massive critical and commercial success with their song Creep, the boys from Oxfordshire were thrust into the international spotlight. They released Pablo Honey as their debut record and followed it up with The Bends. They found themselves in Belgium while touring The Bends and the whirlwind of constant and unrelenting touring to support the album would carry the band to the breaking point on multiple occasions.
True Love Waits made its debut to open up the first encore of the show. Yorke took center stage with an acoustic guitar and began to sing. He strummed ferociously, almost robotically, on his guitar, singing quickly and keeping steady pace. His voice was young but still had that characteristic, almost high-pitched sharpness that came to define Yorke throughout his career.
He stood firm on stage, face glued to the mic as he swayed and shifted through the songs peaks and valleys. The guitar gave a certain urgency to the song, it sounded almost anxious as Yorke wailed through the lyrics. Yorke sung a pleading song, a song that begs his partner to be patient and wait for him to mature.
“I’ll drown my beliefs to have your babies / I’ll dress like your niece and wash your swollen feet”
“True love waits in haunted attics”
“True love lives on lollipops and crisps”
“Just don’t leave”
Yorke spends his time on stage singing from his heart. He makes promises to his partner to grow and mature. He promises that true love waits in the dark landscape of his mentally unwell mind, his haunted attic. He can’t give her the world right this instant, but he can give her small things, candy, chips, surface level expressions of love.
He begs her not to leave, he begs her to wait.
In 1995, Yorke sings this song with a hopeful tinge to it. He sings is with the belief that true love really does wait and when the dark days pass he will be able to provide the love that his partner waits for.
Tom Yorke met Rachel Owen when he was at university before forming Radiohead. The two began a relationship while at uni and were together until they separated in 2015 while the band worked on their last studio album, A Moon Shaped Pool. Owen passed away after a battle with cancer in late 2016, shortly after the two had separated.
The two were together for almost the entirety of Radiohead’s career. She was the only constant in Yorkes life as he navigated the tumultuous world of the touring musician, and she stuck by him the whole time. She waited.
When the sudden fame and grueling touring schedule lead Thom to the brink of taking his own life on more than one occasion. She waited and was there to help pick up the pieces when he reached his lowest point.
Owen had two children with Yorke in the early 2000s, when the band was widely considered to be the biggest band in the world after the success of Ok Computer and Kid A. Through every tour, performance and months long recording sessions, Rachel Owen waited for Thom and gave him all the love he needed. She waited for 23 years to get that same love from him and when she was sick and needed him, they separated.
The details surround their separation are unclear and do not need to be public knowledge. But the timing of the separation as it relates to her death paints an uncomfortable picture. A Moon Shaped Pool was released in May 2016, months before Owens passing. But it is evident that the separation had an effect on Yorke, however amicable they made it out to be.
In 1995, on a stage in Belgium, on the precipice of becoming the lead singer and frontman of the biggest band in the world, Thom Yorke breathed life into True Love Waits. In 2016, it is finally officially released to the world as the closer to A Moon Shaped Pool.
A far cry from the quick strummed acoustic guitar that accompanied the song on stage for years, the studio version of True Love Waits carries so much more weight to it. The guitar is replaced with droning piano that dominates the mix. Yorkes crooning falsetto cuts through the low notes as he sings the lyrics that he first put to paper more than two decades ago.
With a twinkling snowfall of assorted high piano notes in the back of the arrangement giving it texture, the song is an anchored by swelling string arrangements by Johnny Greenwood. Yorkes voice is given a slight echo to give it a more despondent and ethereal feeling. All these qualities thrown together give True Love Waits an entirely new context.
The studio arrangement of True Love Waits is stunning. It sits in the front of your brain and puts an unmistakable pressure behind your eyes. The kind of unique pressure that signifies the onset of a depressive state and the song puts you in that mindset for 4 minutes and 43 seconds.
It puts you in the mind of Yorke as he looks back on the last 20 years of his life and the promises he made to improve and be better for the one he loved. And it keeps you in his mind when he realizes he failed.
The warm bass line envelop you as the song continues. Yorke sings “I’m not living, I’m just killing time”
In 1995 this line felt out of context to the rest of the work, in 2016 it gives us an insight into how Yorke felt when Owens passed. It could also give us a look into how Yorke looks back at the last 20 years realizing he may not have given Owens all the love he promised her. He didn’t live his life to the fullest because he couldn’t love her to the fullest.
The Thom Yorke of 1995 sang True Love Waits as a promise to his partner to be better and mature. In 2016, Thom Yorke sings True Love Waits as a man realizing he broke that promise.
True Love Waits was a staple of many Radiohead live shows after its debut. As the band grew, so did the song. With every sound they tried and genera they dipped their toes into, True Love Waits followed. From the full band alt-rock stylings of the Ok, Computer era to the jagged and abrasive electronic noise influenced style of Kid A and Amnesiac. There is a True Love Waits for every Radiohead fan.
Being the closer of their last record, True Love Waits is the last song the band has ever released. While the band has not officially broken up, many ideas that the band floated around for years found a home on A Moon Shaped Pool, giving it a feeling of finality and closure to the bands prolific career both on stage and in the studio.
True Love Waits in a song about hopeful patience and the possibilities of personal growth to benefit those you love. It is a song that grew with the band and its songwriter in such a way that the context it was originally inspired by shifted to the point where its studio release becomes a deeply melancholic view of the past rather than a hopeful look towards the future.
True love waits, but it can’t wait forever.