ALBUM REVIEW: The Smile - A Light For Attracting Attention

9/10

The Smile - A Light For Attracting Attention

A Light for Attracting Attention is one of the most anticipated albums of 2022. The Smile is a collaborative trio are comprised of Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke and musical polymath Jonny Greenwood along with Sons of Kemet drummer Tom Skinner. The trio worked sporadically on the project to fight boredom during Covid lockdowns.

What results from their efforts is an album that is filled with post-punk, prog rock, afrobeats, electronica and proprietary Radiohead sonic themes.  For Radiohead fans, the album is like all their birthdays coming at once and the closest you can get to an official Radiohead release without all five band members being involved.

The band took their moniker from the name of a Ted Hughes poem, and Yorke explains the name is, “Not the smile as in aah, but the smile of a guy who is lying to you every day.” There is also an underlying influence throughout the release of the poet William Blake, a grand observer of humanity’s double nature. That double nature is even better represented by the dual nature of the sonics on the record. One part the solo works of Yorke and Greenwood, characterised by electronics and orchestral swirls, the other a return to vintage rock, think The Bends, Skinner’s epic drums, and Greenwood’s unexpected aggressive bass lines. Yorke and Greenwood, along with Skinner, take everything Radiohead have learned along the way and funnel it into another unique amalgam.

On the production of the album, long time Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich mans the sound desk as Yorke provides vocals, guitars, bass and keys. Greenwood provides guitars, bass and keys, while the jazz-influenced Skinner releases some unlocked scrappy energy on drums. That combination allows an underlying feeling of freedom and enjoyment for all the members. What emerges is a more skeletal, stripped-down version of Radiohead, with insights from Yorke’s solo works and Greenwood’s brilliant soundtrack efforts.

Yorke stays within his topical roundhouse of unease, corrupt power, environmental disaster and vitriol at the insanity that infects our society. He also adds hope, freedom of the individual and the ever-present idea of people joining together to provide a better day. The overall structure of the sonic canvas is much akin to “Hail to the Thief”, with an underlying theme played out with a multitude of musical approaches.

A Light for Attracting Attention begins strongly with “The Same”, reminiscent of Yorke’s solo offering, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes; there is significant digital goodness. The track builds to a cacophony of layered sound much like an up-to-date version of “The National Anthem”. Yorke comes in with an otherworldly vocal, broodingly stating that we must “Grab with both hands what you know is right,” harkening to dystopian surroundings. He then contrasts this with the mantra/prayer of, “We are all the same,” providing underlying warmth. The track is a massive, intriguing opener.

Enough can not be said about the drums on the album. Tom Skinner is a revelation on percussion, proven by the opening of “The Opposite”, which will win over any listener. Add the sinuous bassline and hammering guitar work, and this song will be a repeat listen. Things continue in this manner with “You Will Never Work in Television Again”. Its awe-inspiring guitar and punchy drums make for an addictive track that harkens to post-punk and one of Greenwood’s favourite bands, The Pixies. In some ways, the song is a time machine back to The Bends. Yorke lyrically raps on the topics of suppression by our betters and society’s rules, damning freedom of expression on a concise and brilliant track.

Just when you think you have the measure of the release, it swerves with the track “Pana-Vision” that could have come straight from A Moon Shaped Pool, recalling tracks like The Numbers and Decks Dark. Its lyrics ponder global warming and the Earth’s future as Yorke utilises a stream of consciousness approach to once again consider our fate.

“The Smoke” unleashes some serious dubstep sonics, a Greenwood obsession, as the drums and bass interact. The song looks at the damage we do in relationships and the despair that results. The album takes another sonic leap with “Speech Bubbles,” a song that blends a prog-rock organ with weird drum timing to set the stage. Yorke’s falsetto floats around, almost detached from the Earth. It’s another track that would feel at home on A Moon Shaped Pool. Yorke asks whether we are floating about in our present or in free fall, waiting to hit bottom. Additionally, he ponders how we handle this situation, with the choices of substance abuse, going mad or taking action. It is a simply gorgeous offering.

“Thin Thing” is anything but, as it sounds as if each of the three musicians are going at the track with palpable fearlessness. The song is filled with jittery drums, edgy keyboards and Greenwood’s incendiary guitar work.  The track is truly a work of art. Throughout the album, the sonics explode around Yorke’s vocals which at times play a supporting role but at others are front and centre. On stand out track, “Free in the Knowledge”, Yorke’s vocals are at the forefront. A simple acoustic guitar with electronic strings accompaniment provides a momentary break from the prior thunderous proceedings. The track is a poultice for our collective souls, as Yorke states, “Free in the knowledge that this will end…this was just a bad moment.” He also excoriates those who “Use fear to keep control”, indicating that if we band together, we can defeat “them”. A calm moment before the trio lets loose once again.

The track “A Hairdryer” once again picks up the cudgel against the corrupt. The anger builds with the sonics as Yorke calls out the politicians who blow hot air in our faces, possessing none of the answers and thinking they can fool us, “Look at all their pretty lies.” This track delivers a fantastic circular guitar and skittery drums. Yorke’s vocals are layered into two streams; a looped falsetto that floats above the mid-range statements he is singing, providing a duality much like many of the tracks on The King of Limbs. Again, there is a dramatic change-up in the tone and tempo of the album with the brilliant “We Don’t Know What Tomorrow Brings.” Hello, Garbage and Joy Division sonic inspirations.

Once again, the trio returns to a post-punk world of the earlier, “You Will Never Work In Television Again”.  There is an inherent paranoia delivered throughout the track as Yorke admits he is “Stuck in a rut, can’t find my way out.” The track is a mini-masterpiece leaving the listener wanting more.

The final offering, “Skrting on the Surface”, has incubated for a long time, with at least five appearances starting with Ok Computer and played live a couple of times. Much like the fable that was the various versions of the song “Nude”, which finally appeared on In Rainbows, this song finally gets its official release as the closer to the album. The sonic treatment of Greenwood’s guitar and Skinner’s fantastic drums is something to experience. Yorke paints a canvas of mankind being kept so blind and dumb by the constant flow of information we never get deeper than the surface. We are likened to jacks of all trades and masters of nothing.  The selection is a summation of all that the trio have attempted to accomplish and is a superlative closer.

A Light for Attracting Attention is possibly the best non-Radiohead album involving any of that band’s members. It is most impressive in its ability to take all the Radiohead trademarks and combine them with inspired lashings of other sounds. The freedom of it not being a Radiohead album allows the trio to have a lot less weight and responsibility and try new approaches. The variation in sonics and themes on the playlist is reminiscent of Hail to the Thief, as different styles keep things interesting. The recording can stand fully on its own but does owe a lot to the side-projects Yorke and Greenwood frequently create.

Every time a member of Radiohead issues a side project, a good number of their well-wishers fear it signals the end of the band. No more so than when the two central driving creative members of the band are involved. Maybe the worst will happen, but in retrospect, each member has had solo/collaborative projects without the band imploding in a mess of vain self-interest. A Light for Attracting Attention amplifies that we don’t know what tomorrow will bring for the entity that is Radiohead. But regardless of the future path of Radiohead, The Smile has much to attract attention and is worthy of any serious music aficionado’s consideration.

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