Thom Yorke's latest side project features bandmate Johnny Greenwood and is enough to starve off the impatience of the Radiohead fanbase, for now.
May 2022 marks six years since the release of Radiohead’s last studio album, A Moon Shaped Pool. With the largest gap between albums being long surpassed (previously, the four and a half years between 2003’s Hail to the Thief to 2007’s In Rainbows), you’d be forgiven for feeling a little frustrated at the longer than usual build-up to the Oxford band’s tenth record.
Since their stunning 2016 ninth studio album, the band members have filled the time by embarking on a number of side projects, later returning to the day job with the release of the Kid A Mnesia compilation last November. Thom Yorke continued his discovery into electronic music with 2019’s ANIMA, a year later Ed O’Brien released his first solo album Earth to mixed reviews and Johnny Greenwood would receive Academy Award nominations for scoring Phantom Thread (2017) and The Power of the Dog (2021).
The Smile is the latest of these side projects, bringing together three crucial Radiohead elements: Thom Yorke, Johnny Greenwood and long term producer Nigel Godrich. As a result, their debut album A Light For Attracting Attention sounds more like the legendary band than any of the above. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t all for it!
Be it Arctic Monkeys, Arcade Fire or Radiohead, there was an everlasting hope that during covid the biggest and best bands were conspiring behind the scenes to produce long-awaited new records, even more so considering all that time they had on their hands. For that reason, the announcement of The Smile in June 2021, which also features drummer Tom Skinner, was met with a strange mixture of excitement and frustration. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that my initial thoughts ranged from “why are they wasting their time on this?” to “ohhhh this outta be good”.
Of course, Thom Yorke is no stranger to new projects and breaking away from being defined as the Radiohead lead singer. He’s been responsible for three excellent solo albums, the soundtrack to 2018 horror film Suspiria and in 2013 fronted supergroup Atoms for Peace, a band which included Red Hot Chilli Peppers bassist Flea, no less. Surprisingly, The Smile is the first time he’s worked with long term bandmate Johnny Greenwood outside of Radiohead. This iconic collaboration makes The Smile sound like a continuation of A Mood Shaped Pool (2016) itself with echoes of the main event that we’ve all been screaming out for. For that reason, it’s easy to forgive the wait for Radiohead’s tenth album (well, just about).
For a side project to sound a lot like the main act the members are associated with could be construed as a criticism in itself, instead The Smile's debut gloriously tempers our impatience. If anything, you feel almost guilty to the other Radiohead members that had this been released as their tenth studio album and you wouldn’t have batted an eyelid!
The 13 tracks on A Light For Attracting Attention bring together the best parts of a modern Radiohead record without actually being one. The uneasy electronics mix with Thom’s desolate vocals for opener ‘The Same’, whilst the 20-second drumming introduction on ‘The Opposite’ give Tom Skinner his moment in the sun before a familiar funky riff and anxious lyrics (“What will now become of us? / The straw is coming out of us”). The same vibe is recreated on the similarly funky and percussion led ‘The Smoke’.
First preview single ‘You Will Never Work in Television Again’ takes us to more unfamiliar raw territory, the pulsating garage rock echoing The Bends era over anything Thom Yorke has produced recently. On ‘Pana-vision’, bliss is achieved through its haunting piano, supporting orchestrations and cynical falsetto vocals (“My eyes open wide / And now I see you / Without your robes on / without your crown”). It meanders between hope and bleakness in a manner only Thom Yorke can achieve.
Meanwhile, amongst the spacey synths of ‘Open The Floodgates” Thom bemoans the substance-lacking desires of many music fans (“Don’t bore us / Get to the chorus / And open the floodgates / We want the good bits”). ‘Free in The Knowledge’ is one of many stunning highlights on the second half of the record with Thom’s desolate vocals supported by strings and an acoustic guitar to spine-tingling effect. ‘Skrting on the Surface’ achieves a similar result, the beautiful demise of a debut album that sounds so familiar in its accomplishment.
All in all, this is the best Radiohead album that isn’t a Radiohead album. Through the pensive electronics, desolate vocals, uneasy strings, understated funk and anxious vocals, this is one that’ll please the desires of the Radiohead fanbase and starve off the impatience for record number 10. A stunning album from start to finish - did we expect anything less when Thom and Johnny get together?