Is The Smile Just Radiohead In Disguise?

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For the better part of their nearly 30-year career, the members of Radiohead have operated in a world of elevated (and maybe even insane) expectations. Their albums are inspected, dissected, deconstructed, and parsed exhaustively for cultural significance and hidden meanings. Ultimately, they have been judged not only on artistic merit, but on whether they have successfully shifted preexisting paradigms for how music is made and sold. And this pressure comes from both the fanbase and from inside the band. Nobody ever gives Radiohead permission to be “just okay.”

This, naturally, has made the creation of Radiohead music an arduous and deliberative process, with the time between releases growing longer and longer as the band has wandered into middle age. In 2006, Thom Yorke was finally moved to put out a solo record, The Eraser, in part because it was so much easier than working on the future Radiohead classic in development at the time, In Rainbows. These stretched-out gestation periods have also been wearying for the band’s unofficial musical director. “I’m the most impatient of everybody in Radiohead,” Jonny Greenwood recently told NME. “I’ve always said I’d much rather the records were 90 percent as good, but come out twice as often, or whatever the maths works out on that.”

Greenwood’s comments were made in the context of A Light For Attracting Attention, the new album by his band The Smile, formed with Yorke and Sons Of Kemet drummer Tom Skinner. The title of the LP could be taken as ironic, given that The Smile appears to be an antidote to the fanatical anticipation that typically greets Thom and Jonny’s work with their “regular” group. The Smile, in contrast, feels like a deliberately low-stakes affair, having come together during lockdown after 40 percent of one of the world’s most beloved bands decided to work on music together with a highly regarded jazz drummer. If anything, adopting The Smile moniker is a means of attracting significantly less attention than a proper Radiohead release inevitably would.

Then again, going back to 2021, Yorke and Greenwood have teased The Smile as a return of sorts to the kind of overt rock moves that Radiohead abandoned on record on their previous two releases, 2011’s King Of Limbs and 2016’s A Moon Shaped Pool. And this is bound to excite a fanbase that’s had precious little new music to inspect, dissect, deconstruct, and parse in recent years.

In January, they released the first single from A Light For Attracting Attention, “You’ll Never Work In Television Again,” a buzzsaw rocker with a shrapnel-spitting vocal by Yorke that is easily the most supercharged rocker to emerge from the Radiohead camp since “Bodysnatchers” on In Rainbows, released a full 15 years ago. Backed by Skinner’s technically brilliant but unobtrusive timekeeping, The Smile present themselves on that song as the most un-Radiohead-like of propositions — a guitar-driven power trio! — that happens to sound, tantalizingly, like a version of Radiohead that Radiohead no longer is apparently interested in being. Given the dearth of actual Radiohead albums since A Moon Shaped Pool, it’s almost too easy to regard A Light For Attracting Attention as the next best thing, a kind of musical methadone for Kid A nation.

The rest of A Light For Attracting Attention doesn’t always conform to the “old rocking Radiohead” standard of “You’ll Never Work In Television Again.” For one thing, Skinner is too good of a drummer to be reduced to mere sideman for two rock stars. His spirited syncopations echo throughout the record, giving the music a relentless pull even when the music slows to an atmospheric, piano-based crawl. On songs like “The Opposite” and “The Smoke,” he gives The Smile a subtle swing, while his machine-like Motorik groove on “Thin Thing” accentuates the song’s robo-funk amid the splashes of sci-fi synths. While almost nothing on the record can be credibly likened to jazz, Skinner’s soft touch on the ballad “Pana-vision” gives the song a smoky, after-hours feel.

But there’s no question that the most profound pleasures of this album are also the simplest — it’s just extremely nice to hear Jonny Greenwood play ripping guitar (or supple bass) while Thom Yorke sings beautiful melodies. On Radiohead records, these men have frequently been moved to subvert their most obvious musical talents, with Greenwood exchanging his guitar for an ondes Martenot and Yorke burying his voice in glitchy subterfuge. (As he famously remarked upon the release of The Eraser, “It annoys me how pretty my voice is.”) But the cover of The Smile guise has apparently liberated them to sound more like, well, them. The album’s most stunning song, “Free In The Knowledge,” is a throwback to unabashedly gorgeous prog-folk epics like “How To Disappear Completely,” in which a simple acoustic strum swells on lush orchestral strings (courtesy of the London Contemporary Orchestra) and Yorke’s operatic emoting. On the opposite end of the spectrum is “We Don’t Know What Tomorrow Brings,” a synth-rock burner that seethes like a Hail To The Thief outtake, with delightfully churning guitars clanging a wiry riff in the direction of some unidentified apocalypse.

As overseen by Radiohead’s in-house producer Nigel Godrich, A Light For Attracting Attention of course sounds impeccable, perfectly balancing the delicacies of Greenwood’s circular, minor-key licks and Yorke’s choir-boy trilling with the more bombastic elements of the orchestra and brass sections, in the manner of Radiohead’s most famous music. What’s missing, at times, are songs that meet their usual standards. Parts of the record are a little stock in a familiar Radiohead mode; tracks like “Speech Bubbles” and “Skirting On The Surface” are lovely but feel more like outtakes than necessary deep cuts. Much better is “Waving A White Flag,” a spooky and cinematic slice of doom that sounds like Beethoven played on a Prophet 5, in which Yorke and Greenwood find a midpoint between their respective solo careers as a laptop electro-popper and an in-demand film composer.

In the end, nitpicking about filler tracks might be missing the point — what matters is that Yorke and Greenwood are working together, and creating exciting music in a slightly different and incalculably more relaxed environment. For such hard-driven perfectionists, the handful of bum tracks could even be taken as a sign of growth. Either way, an album that’s 90 percent as good as a Radiohead record is damn good indeed.