Whenever a side project like The Smile emerges, there will inevitably be people who question the point. I get it. For those who have been waiting for a 10th LP from Radiohead ever since A Moon Shaped Pool in 2016, there was a host of mixed reactions when we learnt that two fifths of the band were joining forces with Sons Of Kemet drummer Tom Skinner to create a band named after a Ted Hughes poem. It definitely does seem a little odd. Responses ranged from excitement at Thom Yorke and Johnny Greenwood getting in the same room and making music, to angry expletives aimed at what could seem like a distraction from the main day job and an indication that maybe Radiohead are no more (despite them repeatedly telling us that they are). Another, perhaps understandable response, was to ask why. What does it mean and why does it need to happen? You’d be a fool to say that The Smile sound nothing like Radiohead, given that the two band members who make the original band so distinctive are central to its sound. So why, then, isn’t this as Radiohead album?
There are a million possible answers – from COVID convenience, to previous commitments, to a huge fallout that might signal the end of the world. The answer I prefer is simpler. To me, it feels like this was purely a case of three talented musicians finding the time and space to work together, welcoming a freedom that must be hard to find when you are used to working with one of the world’s most successful and adored bands. A Light For Attracting Attention seems to support my argument as many of the songs we find upon it, and the loose structure of the album as a whole, suggest a band that were feeling a sense of freedom, a permission to simply make some music that they love without the responsibility that comes with continuing a legacy.
‘The Smoke’ is strong evidence of this. It’s a song that sounds so free, so unconstrained, and so simple at its heart – the key strengths of this track are an amazing but basic bassline and an incredible vocal. There’s more to it than this, for sure – with the additions of horns and multiple layers – but you can sense this song coming to light from a jam, a simple mess about that ended up turning into something magical. ‘You Will Never Work In Television Again’ makes my point even more strongly, as this is the kind of aggressive sounding rock track that it’s hard to imagine Radiohead ever going near again. This is a freewheeling, passionate, nasty sounding song that indicates why this band exists at this time. Do I like it as much as ‘The Smoke’? No. But it’s the most ‘fun’ piece of music they’ve released in a long time, even while the lyrics tell a much darker tale.
There are songs that seem much more appropriate to the trajectory of Thom and Johnny’s recent careers. ‘Speech Bubbles’ is the obvious one, sounding as it does like a more optimistic version of Thom’s ‘Dawn Chorus’ with some of the cinematic orchestration that Mr Greenwood has excelled in recently. This is a gorgeous song, and one of the most beautiful pieces of music you’ll hear all year.
‘Open The Floodgates’ and ‘Skirting On The Surface’ were both previously played by the whole of Radiohead, too, so you’d be hard pressed not to notice the similarities on those.
To me, though, and despite all of the variation in sound that I have been discussing here, the most successful songs on offer are the ones that take the Radiohead DNA and sprinkle in a mix of what drummer Tom Skinner is more usually known for. It’s his offbeat percussion, under the funky basslines and jagged guitars, as well as the added brass elements, that make songs like ‘The Opposite’, ‘The Smoke’, ‘Thin Thing’, and ‘A Hairdryer’ so ridiculously addictive. These are the songs that define the sound of The Smile. For those still questioning why this band and album exist, try and give me an example of another act that so easily mixes the light and shade, who so effortlessly soaks their songs in darkness but makes you want to dance at the same time. Even when they do sound like their other, more famous projects, the sound like a looser, freer version – not better, but different, and very, very welcome. I hope there’ll be more Radiohead to come – of course I do. But I definitely hope that this isn’t the last we see of The Smile.
Words by Fran Slater