True Radiohead Waits No More
A common complaint lodged against Radiohead is that they do not rock anymore. Ever since the guitar cacophony of “Paranoid Android” and “Electioneering” from 1997’s OK Computer, naysayers claim, Radiohead have failed to produce one really rocking track. In many ways, this is true. Kid A (2000) and Amnesiac (2001) were more about grooves and beats, warm textures and rich sonic fabrics. Even on tracks like “The National Anthem” or “I Might Be Wrong”, the driving beats and grooving basslines were more subdued and spacey, emphasizing cool sexiness rather than raucous insurgence.
I Might Be Wrong—Live Recordings stands as proof that Radiohead’s recent studio passivity has not found its way into their live show. Recorded during their 2001 European tour, these eight tracks positively bristle with energy and exuberance. The subtle blips and buzzes of their last two records are amplified and enlarged. These fat, juicy tracks massively expand their studio counterparts.
“The National Anthem” kicks off the disc, propelled by a fuzzed-out-beyond-belief bassline from Colin Greenwood, as singer Thom Yorke manically babbles a long litany of grunts and grasps. Driven by Mingus-like horns on Kid A, “The National Anthem” live is carried more by a bristling guitar line by Ed O’Brien and a stream of random radio feedback and white noise manipulated by guitarist Jonny Greenwood.
“I Might Be Wrong” also stands in marked contrast to its studio cousin. A live staple since the summer of 2000, “I Might Be Wrong” received a lazy, sleepy, groove-based treatment on Amnesiac, angering many Radiohead fans who expected something like the chugging, heavy, fuzz guitar jam found on this record. A jangling tambourine and a thick, Neil Young-esque guitar line anchored by drummer Phil Selway’s funky drum pattern propels this almost danceable, explosive track. One of the charms of I Might Be Wrong—Live Recordings is the rediscovery of Radiohead’s vitality and exuberance. Tracks like “Morning Bell” and “Idioteque” from Kid A and “Dollars and Cents” from Amnesiac overflow with a frankness and power that were not as prevalent on the corresponding studio versions.
The real gems of this collection, however, are the slower, more haunting, stark tracks. “Like Spinning Plates”, a warped, yawning, backwards cut-up from Amnesiac, is included here, performed by Yorke on piano, accompanied by a bass and a low, tasteful synthesizer. Just as the collection as a whole unravels the studio enigma of Radiohead, this track cracks open the mystery of its studio counterpart. That which was wrapped in confusion and ambiguity is here brought to light. What is left is a fragile, haunting, almost baroque piano lament. “While you make pretty speeches”, sings Yorke, “I’m being cut to shreds”. His voice is clear and sad, lonely and wailing. The sense of despair and loneliness is overwhelming. The fact, however, that Radiohead can make such puzzling studio pieces come to such vibrant, if disturbing, life in concert is a startling accomplishment. As much as their new material may recall Brian Eno, they are not distant, aloof masters of subtle loops and aural landscapes. This record shows them to be real performers, willing and able to take their intricate studio compositions and transform and humanize them on stage.
It is at this point where “True Love Waits”, the collection’s closer, comes into the picture. This tragic evocation of love and devotion performed by Yorke solo on acoustic guitar is an old stage favorite, officially released here for the first time. This amazing ballad, in the vein of “Thinking ‘Bout You” from Pablo Honey and “Motion Picture Soundtrack” from Kid A, is the reason to reaffirm your belief in Radiohead. Their visions of apocalypse and destruction, alienation and desolation, can be pretty bleak. The horrible nightmares conjured up by tracks like “Dollars and Cents” and “Idioteque”, compelling as they are, are nothing to live your life by—they envisage the kind of situations you run from with all your might.
“True Love Waits” shows that behind all of Radiohead’s modernist nightmares is a fragile, desperate desire to connect, fully and meaningfully, with just one person. “I’ll drown my beliefs”, sings Yorke, “to have your babies / I’ll dress like your niece / to wash your swollen feet / Just / Don’t leave”. The emotion is pure and unaffected, naked and haunting. In Yorke calling out for his lover not to leave, the struggle and drama of all of Radiohead’s music comes into sharp focus. The problem is not with Yorke—he is not morose, or depressive, or pathetic, or anything else. The problem is with the world—a world that too often drowns out the simple helplessness of a song like “True Love Waits”. The fear and paranoia of Radiohead come from the fear that there is no place in the world for something like “True Love Waits”. “True Love Waits” weaves itself in and out of all Radiohead’s music—it is always there, yearning to break free, but too often suppressed and silenced.
The simple arrangement, the pure, true, inspiring clarity of Yorke’s vocal delivery, the simple message of devotion and love in the song’s lyrics—“True Love Waits” is a bittersweet victory of love, plain and simple. It reminds you that the drama of Radiohead has something higher in mind. It all can’t be meaningless blips and beeps, raucous horns and driving guitars, paranoia and depression. “True Love Waits” lets you know that it is all about the simple desire not to be alone. In giving us a picture of Radiohead that starts with the terrifying bass riff of “The National Anthem” and ends with Yorke pleading “Don’t leave” at the end of “True Love Waits”, I Might Be Wrong—Live Recordings gives a complete picture of Radiohead’s music—the fear, the recognition, and, in the guise of simple desire and devotion, the redemption.