THE SMILE | Album Review — ‘A Light for Attracting Attention’
The Smile is a new rock band formed by Radiohead’s key creatives Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood, with Tom Skinner of the earth-shaking jazz group Sons of Kemet playing drums. Their debut album A Light for Attracting Attention shares many of Radiohead’s trademarks: Yorke’s falsettos, warbling guitars, sci-fi synths, dramatic piano chords, textural string sections. However, to call The Smile a Radiohead side project is to overlook Skinner’s nuanced, funky drumming. His rhythms fluctuate, rarely repeating the same phrase, creating new terrain for Yorke and Greenwood to explore.
Radiohead hasn’t released an album since 2016’s A Moon Shaped Pool, but since then both Yorke and Greenwood released solo material. Yorke’s 2019 album Anima sounds like an artificial-intelligence version of Radiohead, all steely synths and distant vocals. Greenwood is an active composer, with two film scores under his name in 2021 alone. His soundtrack work is strong but feels rigidly academic, over-calculated — especially when divorced from the films.
Sons of Kemet contrasts the cold, overwrought solo work of the Radiohead members with fiery, danceable urgency. Their 2021 album Black to the Future is an onslaught — magnificent, stomping jazz that transports you to the streets, calls you to action. This energy feels more like the fuel for A Light for Attracting Attention than anything Yorke or Greenwood made in recent years.
The album opens with “The Same”, a simple synthesizer and voice duet. Yorke pleads to the “people in the streets” that “we all want the same, we are all the same” over Greenwood’s pulses, slowly increasing in volume. “Free In the Knowledge” is also minimal, just a few chords on an acoustic guitar and Yorke’s voice, clear and present. The line “a face using fear to try to keep control, but we get together, well then, who knows” suggests mass uprising in a world of late-stage capitalism. Yorke has adapted his nervous pessimism from the late 90’s and early 00’s — he now acknowledges that we are presently in dystopia, and motivates us for change.
Heavy lyrics aside, the album is exciting and fun. At 53 minutes, it’s nearly identical in length to A Moon Shaped Pool, but feels like it goes faster. Greenwood’s guitars on “The Opposite” and “Thin Thing” are downright gnarly. His interplay with Skinner is playful but tight, like a finely honed circus act. “You Will Never Work In Television Again” bangs and sneers, a reverbed riff over a galloping beat. The piano in “Pana-Vision” eerily twists and swirls, reminiscent of Yorke’s work on the 2018 Suspiria score. Horns deepen the mood, giving the song muscle before relaxing away. The trio excel at making little switches; a taste of a hook, then an odd rhythm change, a head-bobbing chorus, an ambient stretch, the hook again but with more dynamics. Like any puzzle that takes time to understand, the album sounds better with each listen.
The highlight is “The Smoke”, a relaxed, groovy treat featuring Yorke at his most sensual. The line “I have set myself on fire” feels more like self-embrace than immolation, as if he’s celebrating kindling a new passion, or the rekindling of an older one. A Light for Attracting Attention is a new flame from veteran musicians — natural, bright, and inviting.