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The Smile’s “slightly crazed and uncertain landscape”

Tom W. McGrath reviews A Light for Attracting Attention.

Imagine if John Lennon and Paul McCartney had reunited without Ringo Starr and George Harrison and made an album six years after Let It Be. It would have been both very confusing for fans of the Beatles, and very difficult not to measure their new album against the immense heights of Revolver or Sgt. Pepper. For fans of Radiohead, that is not wholly unlike what’s happening with The Smile’s first album, A Light for Attracting Attention. The Smile consists of Radiohead’s two most creative talents, Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood, plus jazz drummer Tom Skinner, minus the rhythm section of the band, Phil Selway and Colin Greenwood, and guitarist Ed O’Brien. It’s tempting to compare this album to Radiohead and find it wanting. There is little as epochal as OK Computer, as vibrant as Hail to the Thief, or as delicately moving as A Moon Shaped Pool here. But I will try to keep such comparisons to a minimum. The Smile is not Radiohead; they have a new name, a new line-up, and appear to see themselves to be doing something artistically different (even if some of their songs began life as Radiohead songs).

Despite no less than five singles being released before the album, what in my view are the standout songs of the album, The Same and We Don’t Know What Tomorrow Brings, were not among them. The former opens the album with a synth pulsing into view, slowly augmented by an array of electronic pitter-patters. Its sound is atypical of the rest of the album, but is also an excellent introduction. It takes you by the hand into the slightly crazed and uncertain landscape in which the rest of the album unfolds, somewhere between heaven and a bewitched forest, between all-embracing radiance and the uneasy sense that you are being played.

The Same sounds like a rallying cry for a popular movement: ‘People in the streets, please, people in the streets’ Yorke implores. ‘We all want the same’ morphs into ‘we are all the same’ – a realisation of the shared, fallen nature of humanity? A plea for peace – ‘We don’t need to fight’? Or a call for moral integrity – ‘Look towards the light, grab it with both hands, what you know is right’? Perhaps all of these things. The way the song ends on an abrupt and disconcertingly harsh note suggests prospects are a little bleak. Bleakness is certainly found in other parts of the album, such as Open the Floodgates, but, as so often in Yorke’s work, glimpses of optimism, beauty and a yearning for the good splinter the murk and the gloom.

We Don’t Know what Tomorrow Brings and You Will Never Work in Television Again have a rawness and fervour not seen since 2007’s Bodysnatchers, though Yorke is even more growly here. We Don’t Know what Tomorrow Brings, in amongst simmering, menacing rumbles from the synth that embolden the guitar scuttling above it, sketches creative struggles: ‘I’m stuck in a rut, in a flatland drainage ditch, and I’m drowning in irrelevance’. Given the number of high-calibre songs on this album, I can’t imagine this was a musical rut. Some themes are returned to, and stylistic throwbacks are made to Yorke and Greenwood’s previous work, but the sound could not be confused, really, for Radiohead. The album has too many punk, and sometimes funk (e.g. The Opposite), elements for that, although there remain great swells from string and horn arrangements, probably Jonny’s influence, that lift songs into higher, fragile realms more in the manner of later Radiohead albums. And of course, there is much noodling from Jonny’s guitar, but somehow it sits more prominently on the surface of these songs than is usually the case.  

In Free in the Knowledge these surging strings grow from the electronic undergrowth, accompanied by another terrific vocal performance from Yorke, which reminds me of 2009’s Harry Patch (In Memory Of). I think this song has some very evocative lines: ‘Free in the knowledge, that one day this will end’ leaves me wondering what it would mean to feel free in this knowledge, and if we ever really come to know, or appreciate, this at all. Likewise, ‘this was just a bad moment, we were fumbling around’, makes me think of the difficulty of knowing what’s a bad moment, and what is just bad. Yorke’s lyrics have always been thought-provoking, and those on this album are as engaging as any he has written.

Skrting on the Surface is also a contemplation on life’s finitude. ‘We have only to dive, then we’re out of here; we’re just skirting on the surface’ Yorke sings. Thin Thing, meanwhile, bubbles along until you’re hit by a wall of guitar, atop which you’re left anxiously balanced, wondering where the song is taking you next. I’ve found that, as so often with Radiohead, it takes quite a few listens to get under the skin of these songs, to know what they’re about, and let them say something to you. A song like Speech Bubbles seems at first so ethereal, so tender as to barely be there. But it grows and grows, as the song goes on and with each listen, and it emerges as a warm, woollen blanket wrapped between you and the icy world of which it speaks sinister tales. ‘Our city’s a-flame, the bells ringing … Never any place to put my feet back down … Any feeble branch to put my weight upon’. It is heartfelt and deeply moving.

Not all the songs are as successful. I find The Smoke fairly monotonous and uncomfortably restricted (as though you are stuck in a smoky 1970s waiting room, which may be the point), although the second half does become more expansive. A Hairdryer is also perhaps a bit too contorted for its own good. These would have made excellent B-sides.  The very concept of The Smile is a little confusing for fans of Radiohead and Yorke. Is The Smile just a lockdown project brought about by Thom and Jonny’s desire to write music and the reluctance or time commitments of the other Radiohead members? Or has Radiohead quietly become a legacy act, and The Smile its successor band? I expect we’ll find out in the next few years. Until then, we at least have a new album which is very worthy, for the most part, on its own merits. 

Image credit: Raph_PH / CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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