There’s always been something airy about “Lift.” Written in the process of developing OK Computer, the song debuted in 1996 to a rapturous reception at open-air concerts. Fans were so pleased that the band became suspicious of its appeal; they didn’t want to become the wrong kind of rock stars, and “Lift,” with its gently streaming guitars and sweet images of rescue and security, seemed likely to dominate any track list on which it featured. Powered by “Lift,” Radiohead, in the dire future they envisioned, would become a mega-pop sensation, the new U2. They shelved the song in favor of songs focused on a different sort of dire future, thus ensuring that “Lift” would never fit onto OK Computer, and the song, though still a fan favorite, would languish in relative obscurity on unauthorized compilations of similarly jettisoned music.
It wasn’t entirely a shock to learn this year that “Lift,” after two decades, would finally receive the proper album treatment, the album being the 20th-anniversary edition of OK Computer. The days when Radiohead ran the risk of becoming extremely popular and incredibly uncool are past. “Lift” doesn’t sound like an alternate timeline for Radiohead now so much as the platonic ideal of a song by Coldplay. (Though you could argue that Coldplay is, in effect, precisely what Radiohead feared becoming.) In any case, Radiohead was owning up to orphaning a very nice song, and to top it all off, they were going to make a music video for it.
Released today, the video is, quite literally, a downer. Lifts, in Britain, are elevators, and Thom Yorke, dressed in a hobo-esque outfit, ill-shaven, glum with a man-bun, is on his way down a lift. Each floor is different: People of various races, genders, and walks of life get on and off between the 17th floor and the 1st, but Thom remains constant, true to himself. The song plays, but he isn’t singing it. His mouth, permanently closed, is dominated by an inconsolable look. The album version of “Lift” is slower, less cheerful and less, uh, uplifting, and it makes sense that its visual treatment would be similarly dour. There’s always been something slightly chancy and discreetly self-aggrandizing about Radiohead’s correlation between integrity and unpopularity — they got pretty damn popular anyway, after all — but as the video suggests, at this point it’s too late to change. Sour, dour, poised in the midst of despair, that’s their story and they’re sticking to it.