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The best music can seem to stop time. With “I Promise,” Radiohead keep up their recent habit of traveling through time. The band has always repurposed old material for its new records, but “True Love Waits,” from last year’s A Moon Shaped Pool, was different: a radical reinterpretation of a decades-old tune beloved to millions for its previously released live version. Their upcoming OK Computer reissue includes several unreleased tracks of similar vintage, the most storied among them being “Lift,” which represents Radiohead’s road not taken as alternative-rock hitmakers rather than a career live band known for its album-length statements.
“I Promise,” like “Lift,” dates to Radiohead’s tour supporting Alanis Morissette in 1996, and it was played several times that year. Curiously, Thom Yorke has reportedly likened “I Promise” to Joy Division, but extant live recordings reveal a regretful acoustic strummer akin to R.E.M. at their most tender, with marching drums and majestic mellotron-like washes of orchestral tones. Melody Maker once pointed out how, despite an underlying current of emotional anguish, the song’s pledge that “I won’t run away again” reflects the wistful positivity of a band that had said it didn’t want to make “miserable” records anymore. If they’d released “Lift” in 1997, it might’ve been inescapable on the radio; if they’d released “I Promise,” it might’ve been inescapable in dorm rooms, at open mic nights, and wherever else sensitive guys with guitars are found.
Of course, that didn’t happen. The band stopped playing “I Promise” live, and the version during the OK Computer sessions didn’t even make the cut as a B-side. Guitarist Ed O’Brien told reporters in late 1998 that “I Promise” was in the running for the follow-up, but 2000’s Kid A, 2001’s Amnesiac, 2003’s Hail to the Thief, and 2007’s In Rainbows passed by without it, too. In one post-In Rainbows interview, asked if “I Promise” had “a chance,” O’Brien replied strongly in the negative. But he also called it “a bit like a Roy Orbison number.”
The OK Computer reissue recording of “I Promise,” which debuted on streaming services last night and has received an eerily gorgeous video, is no contemporary reimagining like “True Love Waits.” It’s the familiar rendition from Radiohead’s 1996 tour, immaculately capturing a young band that was standing on the edge. It doesn’t much reinvent the group’s The Bends-era iteration, as the technological lyrical themes and gloomy production of OK Computer would. But it’s stunning all the same, and it arrives to us miraculously free of all the cultural baggage it could have accrued over the past 20 years if it had been released. Instead of being in dialogue with Coldplay or the other dorm-room hits of its era, “I Promise” belongs to the ages, with Orbison and Joy Division, now. The song has finally lived up to its early promise.