2001 was a different time.
I was 18—a college freshman, and it was in college that I was introduced to the concept of “high speed internet” (we still had dial-up and American Online at my mother’s home) as well as the idea of file sharing.
Audio Galaxy was my file sharing service of choice, and among the countless things I downloaded at low bitrates—many of them mislabeled mp3s, or at least, cut off at the end of the song—were scads of Radiohead; mostly b-sides, but some live recordings as well.
And among all of that Radiohead, I’m fairly confident that there was a version of “I Promise.”
It seems unfathomable that it was a studio recording, so more than likely, it was a live version, distant sounding and warbled, as many bootlegs tend to be.
I’ve been an ‘internet music writer’ for a little over four years now, and like many other internet music writers, I love nostalgia. At some point along the way, I eased into writing thinkpieces about seminal albums upon the celebration of a milestone anniversary—usually a 10 or 20 year mark. Eventually, I realized I would have to write something commemorating the 20th anniversary of my favorite record of all time, OK Computer, a task that seems incredibly daunting.
Radiohead don’t seem like a band that really enjoys nostalgia.
They aren’t particularly fond of diving into their back catalog of songs beyond a certain point, and when The Bends turned 20, it did so unceremoniously. So it’s rather surprising that the band is whole-heartedly celebrating the 20th anniversary of OK Computer with a massive reissue of the album.
The standard reissue fare is included in what the band has called OKNOTOK—the original album (remastered, of course), a collection of b-sides, and in the deluxe edition, expanded album art.
However, what made me plunk down $140 for said deluxe edition without batting an eyelash is the presence of three unreleased tracks from the OK Computer era, including the mythologized “Man Of War” (originally intended for the soundtrack to 1998’s The Avengers, and never completed), “Lift” (a fan favorite, and speculated at one time to be in the running for Hail to The Thief’s tracklist), and the slow burning acoustic “I Promise,” which the band has opted to release in advance of the reissue package as a “single” of sorts.
Like “Lift,” “I Promise” was a song workshopped when the band was selected to open for Alanis Morissette on her Jagged Little Pill tour, a grouping that seems kind of out of place—one act would go on to make moody art rock and change the face of music; the other would go on to be in a Kevin Smith movie and date Ryan Reynolds.
Stating the obvious, “I Promise” is a gorgeous song.
It soars in the same way the band’s most emotionally manipulative material from The Bends soars. And actually, structurally and sonically, this song has way more in common with The Bends than it does with OK Computer, so it’s inclusion on this reissue is interesting—it is so drastically different that it seems laughable that it was ever in serious consideration for the final sequencing of the record—though maybe it never was. It has, after all, been sitting in a vault somewhere for the past 20 years. It wasn’t even used as a b-side during this era.
Based around big, strummy, resonatey acoustic guitars, “I Promise” at first reminds me slightly of a Bends-era b-side called “How Can You Be Sure?” but perhaps that is simply because of the heavy reliance on big, strummy, unabashedly “Britpoppy” acoustic guitars. However, the comparisons between the two songs can stop there: while “How Can You Be Sure?” finds Thom Yorke possibly having a sense of humor, and the rest of Radiohead rollicking along side him, “I Promise” is all about creating a sense of tension with little to no release.
“I Promise” just builds.
It builds and builds until through the verses (there is really no discernible refrain, just the repetition of the phrase “I promise,”) before it seems like it is all going to collapse under its own weight in the final 30 seconds of the song with Yorke’s youthful snarl and howl and the addition of a lush string section. It doesn’t collapse, though—it just comes to a surprisingly unceremonious halt. It’s the kind of song that doesn’t overstay its welcome, though it could. This is the kind of song that could go on exponentially longer than four minutes, because as it suddenly runs out of steam and concludes, no matter how many times I’ve listened to it and am aware the end is coming, as soon as I hear that final acoustic guitar strum, I want to say, “No, that can’t be all. Is there more?”
OK Computer, 20 years down the line, is an album that I will never tire of listening to. Every time I put it on, which is more often than you may think, I hear something new, or I appreciate an aspect of it I hadn’t before. Or, it simply serves as a reminder of why Radiohead is my favorite band, and this album is my favorite of all time.
Some people may feel like a reissue including only three unreleased songs is nothing to get worked up over, but I would disagree.
Radiohead is a notoriously private and definitive band—OK Computer was, and still is, a defining statement for them, so to let the listener in, 20 years into the past, with an artifact like “I Promise” is incredibly benevolent of them to do. By no means a groundbreaking song, it captures a band on the verge of something much bigger than itself—still able to write something that resembles a pop song (despite its slow burning nature, it does get stuck in your head), and still finding their way to that definitive statement.
OKNOTOK 1997 2017 arrives on June 23rd via XL. The special edition is slated to ship “in July.”