When considering The Smile, the best place to start might be with the band’s least-known member. The three-piece group, which just released its first album, A Light for Attracting Attention, features two of the most well-known musicians on the planet in Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood. Their legacies in Radiohead and film scores are secure, to say the least. But what about this third guy, Tom Skinner?
Skinner is part of a tremendously exciting London jazz scene, which includes his work in Sons of Kemet, a band fronted by Shabaka Hutchings that focuses on breaking through stale and archaic views of British identity and replacing them with something more exciting—hence their third album, the rocking and grooving Your Queen Is a Reptile.
The electric music of Sons of Kemet made Skinner a good candidate for The Smile, in which he joins Yorke and Greenwood to make some absolutely electric rock music. If you’re looking at The Smile through the lens of Radiohead albums, it feels like a mix of early alt-rock albums like The Bends, the anger of Hail to the Thief, and the melancholy electronica of Moon-Shaped Pool. The Smile might have been a temporary COVID project, but it marks an exciting point in the ever-evolving careers of everyone involved.
The full breadth of the musical talent on hand is seen on the album’s first three tracks, “The Same,” “The Opposite,” and “You Will Never Work in Television Again.” (These are great song names, for the record.) “The Same” is a haunting opening track, inspired by Yorke’s experience watching societal tensions rise during COVID lockdowns. The song’s electronic beats build quickly into something tense as Yorke describes “somebody’s telling lies,” invoking “simple-ass motherfuckers.” People are out in the street, angry, and as the tension heightens through piano and swirling electronica, you can hear Yorke practically begging them to hear his message: “We are all the same,” he says, over and over again.
If the people are all the same, it’s the government that’s “The Opposite.” Invoking a strawman falling apart, fireworks being lit up, and game show contestants, in this song Yorke builds up an obtuse but threatening vision of a government shouting down the protesters from the track earlier. “He doesn’t mean anything,” goes the refrain.
All of this tension explodes on “You Will Never Work in Television Again,” one of Yorke and Greenwood’s hardest rocking tracks in ages. The song takes on a “gangster troll promising the moon,” which could also describe any number of politicians in the last decade. Yorke’s anger is visceral as he describes a man who “chews ’em up, he spits ’em out / It’s whatshisname, the gеnie man.” Again, take your pick.
Elsewhere, on “Open The Floodgates,” a warm electronic bed of sound hums as Yorke describes a group of people who want a pain-free experience: “We want the good bits / Without your bullshit / And no heartaches.” A strike against the echo chambers of social media? A snide blow against Radiohead nostalgia for the good ol’ days of the ‘90s, which were actually quite rough on Yorke and Greenwood? Possibly!
A theme emerges in the second half of the album. Being “free in the knowledge / That one day this will end / Free in the knowledge / That everything is change,” goes “Free in the Knowledge.” Here these hopeful themes offer a partial counterbalance to the album’s undercurrents of existential frustration.
A Light for Attracting Attention is a complex, moody work filled with moments of pure catharsis. The Smile’s first album can be listened to for enjoyment, repeated for obsession, or any combination of the two. Would a Radiohead album by any other name sound any different? Thankfully, the answer is no.
David Meir Grossman is a writer living in Brooklyn. His Twitter feed is @davidgross_man.