Album Review: The Smile – A Light For Attracting Attention

[XL; 2022]

Ever since OK Computer, Thom Yorke has professed fear and distrust through his words – but he and Radiohead have always balanced it with sheer beauty. With The Smile, his new band with old ally Jonny Greenwood and new one Tom Skinner, he’s arguably more agitated and hopeless than ever, and this time around beauty is less of a priority. Of course A Light For Attracting Attention is graced with strings from the London Contemporary Orchestra and brass by a host of talents from the London jazz scene, but they’re often arranged more to accentuate the paranoia than to abate it – and the album is all the better for it.

Yorke’s always had a talent for attacking pernicious forces through tactful means rather than dropping direct references, and that is on display across A Light For Attracting Attention. Around the turn of the century, Radiohead were pretty much caricatured for the amount of apprehension that lived in their lyrics, but in the last 20 years the world has gradually come to align with the vision Yorke has long professed. In 2022, the feeling that we’re living in a broken, corrupt system is practically mainstream, and The Smile’s by turns rugged and reflective album provides a perfect soundtrack for these anchorless times. 

Within the opening couplet of tracks, “The Same” and “The Opposite”, they hone in on the biggest ill affecting society: the entrenched oppositional views that spark anger and violence in every issue. “The Same” finds Yorke begging “people in the street, please / we are one, the same,” while sickly synths and trembling piano underscore the horror of seeing opponents tear each other apart. Skinner makes his bow with the skittering drums that open “The Opposite”, where Yorke accepts that people’s desires might be the same in principle, but their means of acquiring them are deeply incongruous. This existential feedback is made audible through Greenwood’s finger-tapped guitar playing that rings like an alarm as Yorke sings about “logical absurdity”, “elected billionaires” and how “it doesn’t mean anything”.

As the album progresses, The Smile touch on many more hot topics, but always without being ham-fisted. The raucous “You Will Never Work In Television Again” tells a tale of workplace power abuse, where a bigwig with “evil eyes and piggy limbs” takes advantage of an underling by telling them they have to go to bed with him or their career is over. The climate crisis has long been one of the topics Yorke’s been most outspoken on, but he has never done it with the diaphanous brutality of “The Smoke”, where he sings angelically about setting himself on fire, both as an act of protest and in empathy with Mother Earth. There’s also references to having pictures stolen from your phone (“Thin Thing”), a shameful “blue eyed fox” who resembles Trump (“A Hairdryer”) and being deathly afraid of the future (“We Don’t Know What Tomorrow Brings” and just about every other song here). 

While these are heavy topics, they are lightened by the chemistry on display in the instrumentation. There’s nothing that’s particularly far outside the Radiohead and Nigel Godrich playbook, but there is a levity and different dynamic that comes through; it’s audible that these are songs that have been hashed out by three people in a room together. Radiohead songs, by the time we hear them, are often quite dense, and with so many minds at work it’s a bit of a black box as to who contributed what. Here, pull away the bells and whistles, and you can hear Yorke chopping it up on the bass or bobbing away on the piano, bouncing ideas off his lifetime collaborator – who’s having fun focusing on the guitar again – while Skinner slides in with intelligent, understated drums.

However, when you have a decorated composer in your band, you might as well add a bunch of other instruments to those frameworks, and The Smile exploit this ability throughout the record. As we’ve heard on many Radiohead songs in recent years, Greenwood always seems to have an arrangement for a heavenly bouquet of strings and synths up his sleeve, and here he unrolls a few potent pieces to augment the slow and stately numbers, of which there are a handful. The best of these are the sway-along anthem of hopelessness “Free In The Knowledge” and the eerily alienated “Waving A White Flag”, which glides on thick waves of unease. 

As moving as those songs are, The Smile are more intriguing when they shift slightly further away from Yorke and Greenwood’s established palette. On the Can-esque “The Smoke”, percolating bass and drums interlock perfectly while Greenwood prowls the edges, adding flecks of guitar and conducting the array of wind instruments. The intertwining guitars on “A Hairdryer” have a desert-rock tone and energy, while Skinner’s most technical playing guides the song through a dramatically seesawing combination of strings. The pulse-quickening “We Don’t Know What Tomorrow Brings” finds the trio heads down and charging towards the sunrise with fraught punk gusto while oozing synths yap at their heels. 

Given the fatalist tone and bruised hues used throughout A Light For Attracting Attention, it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that it has an unhappy ending – but the piercingly crestfallen “Skrting On The Surface” is truly gutting. Greenwood’s tender guitar licks and Skinner’s caressing percussion are complemented by an elegiac arrangement of brass, underscoring Yorke’s final farewell; “when we realise that we are broke and nothing mends / we can drop under the surface” he sings in his most affecting falsetto.

It’s a sullen way to conclude an album, but that’s long been Yorke and Greenwood’s wont, and they know how to make it land like a kiss that rends the ground beneath your feet. It is a fitting send off for the album and, who knows, it might even be the last song we hear from The Smile – with all three members having so many other commitments, there’s no guarantee they’ll ever do it again. However, with evident chemistry like this, we can only hope The Smile bubble back up to the surface one day – when the time is right.