The Smile’s debut record may arrive with smaller stakes than its respective members’ flagship projects, but it compensates with a welcome agility and looseness to its sonic playground.
When perennial critic and music bro favorite Radiohead dropped, with near-surprise timing, A Moon Shaped Pool in 2016, the album was heralded not only as another storied entry in the band’s storied career, but, in time, as a possible capstone for its existence as well. Arriving alongside mortality-minded contemporary records like David Bowie’s Blackstar, A Tribe Called Quest’s We Got It From Here…, and Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker, AMSP evoked similar feelings of a journey’s end, its apocalyptic subject matter and reintroduction of older material closing the loop on some of the band’s central tensions and propositions. Radiohead’s output in the years since, if not posthumous per se, has helped to cement AMSP’s sense of finality, comprising mainly archival video footage and reworked/repackaged stray material. A robust number of solo releases during this same period from principal players like frontman Thom Yorke and guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood (and a perfectly solid solo debut from guitarist Ed O’Brien) further suggested a group of musicians disengaged from active creation with one another. On paper, The Smile — a new trio with Yorke, Greenwood, and now-former Sons of Kemet drummer Tom Skinner — seemed like another possible such side-quest, yet on debut album A Light for Attracting Attention, this satellite outfit is often indistinguishable from its mothership, compensating for secondary status with an agility and looseness largely unavailable to imperial era Radiohead.
If accompanied by smaller stakes than a hypothetical new Radiohead album, the musical aesthetic of ALfAA should satisfy fans of the group’s universal sighs and low-flying panic attacks. Taking the baton from the lush, gauzy passages on AMSP, ALfAA forgoes Yorke and Greenwood’s occasional rock n’ roll reluctance and foregrounds guitar leads as a guiding light through doomy dioramas. After the oozing synth creep of opener “The Same,” chiming guitars clarify The Smile’s ambition to jam on “The Opposite” and lead single “You Will Never Work in Television Again,” the latter a happy marriage in no-wave between early Sonic Youth-like ferocity and the cavernous qualities of Glenn Branca. A comparable balance between primacy and cacophony is struck on “We Don’t Know What Tomorrow Brings,” its buzzing pulse building to an atonal squall, and one of Yorke’s most possessed performances on mic in years. On tracks with longer runways to riff — the krautrock-adjacent “A Hairdryer” and oscillating “Thin Thing” — repetition-driven grooves coast uneasily until coming precisely undone in crunchy devolutions. These mathier song constructions are founded upon, and carried by, the dexterity of Skinner, whose unexpected instrumentations and driving syncopations coax urgency and immediacy out of collaborators more well-known for their reserve. Though if Skinner is responsible for keeping The Smile earthbound, “sixth Radiohead member” and producer Nigel Godrich deserves credit for providing ALfAA with its ethereal edges, his warped textures and reverbed echoes adding mystery to these more physical songs (a stark contrast with his unforgivingly direct productions on the month of May’s other notable indie rock comeback).
Ironically enough, both Godrich-produced works (released one week apart) share many of the same topics and concerns, among them the fraying bonds within society and the decline of political order in modern times. It’s well-trod terrain for Yorke certainly, whose work in Radiohead and on 2019 solo album ANIMA consistently cast the singer as both protagonist and avatar for the alienation of a beset-upon populace. His tendencies toward emotional agitprop are as acute as ever here, conveying world-weariness through single-and-plural first-person observations of ill omens and tidings. The approach reaches fatalist peaks on ballads like “Speech Bubbles” and “Skrting on the Surface,” with both songs’ narrators staring down crumbling futures to the tune of a gloomy jazz shuffle, ambling in a fog through which sunlight occasionally shines. On the gorgeous, strings-centric “Pana-vision,” Yorke’s critique of life’s dull grind takes a different tact, adopting instead the perspective of a character moving into the next life with sublime bliss. If Yorke’s depressive balladry ends up slightly over-represented on ALfAA — and perhaps slightly over-familiar within his larger body of work — The Smile’s immaculate execution of the downer vibe forestalls any potential for drag here, skewing the results closer to “big mood” than “late period Drake album.” Though more so than its #sad tenor, the most compelling argument supporting the timeliness of ALfAA may be the album’s embodiment of the desire to do more or less the same things with a different group of friends.
Published as part of Album Roundup — May 2022 | Part 3.