As I near my 27th year I am continuing my venture backwards into popular culture. I am trying to sift through all the cultural artifacts that clutter my brain. Sometimes I will stumble on interlocking pieces, a name I haven’t been able to place will appear on the opening credit of a film. Recently, Everything is Copy, a documentary about screenwriter Nora Ephron piqued my interest; her name rang a bell but I didn’t know why. As I watched the documentary it was clear why Ephron sat somewhere deep in my cultural consciousness. Ephron is responsible for the gooiest romantic comedies of the 90s, namely Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and You’ve Got Mail (1998). Without seeing either movie I have unconsciously absorbed them, I scroll through them in streaming feeds growing increasingly curious. It wasn’t until after I learned about Ephron’s significance that I explored her movies.
My feelings toward Radiohead mirror my experience with Ephron’s movies. I’ve somehow managed to avoid Radiohead even though they’ve been active most of my life, sitting just outside of my interest. It’s not like I blame myself for not paying attention, I was enjoying other music. The frustrating fact is I can’t enjoy everything in every moment. Even more maddening is that I could have seen the band if I would have been paying attention. The butterfly effect of my interests determined a different road for me. In a far away multiverse there is Radiohead-obsessed Blake that picked up Hail To The Thief instead of American Idiot. In this timeline though, 2022 was the year that Radiohead finally clicked for me, and just in time for the latest side-project of Jonny Greenwood and Thom Yorke.
The Smile consists of Greenwood and Yorke joined by Sons of Kemet drummer Tom Skinner, forming a mighty 3-piece ensemble. While Skinner holds down the drums for the entirety of A Light for Attracting Attention, the album’s credits show that Greenwood and Yorke were passing instruments back and forth between tracks. Skinner was probably happy to be the only member contributing drums since he is one of two drummers in his usual group.
In the equation of The Smile Skinner is the only variable. Greenwood and Yorke have spent 3 decades writing masterful records as two fifths of Radiohead. As the odd man, Skinner plays a strong foundational role in the trio. Skinner first appears on the record on “The Opposite”, a psyche rock acid trip that shifts between grooves and winding dissonant passages. Skinner acts as trip sitter, anchoring the two Radioheads as guitars become frantic and synths wind wildly upward, Skinner’s stable beat is a reminder of safety. Another instance of Skinner’s stability is on “The Smoke”. Skinner provides a tight high-hat groove beneath a funky bass line. Yorke’s vocal rises like plumes of steam atop the simmering beat. Skinners’ fast and sure style doesn’t require loudness to be noticed. The bead hits on the closed high-hat are ASMR level quiet, but Skinner is clearly heard. The Smile benefits from a strong rhythmic foundation provided by the Sons of Kemet drummer.
Greenwood and Yorke need no introduction and their collective style is instantly recognizable in The Smile. It should come as no surprise that primary songwriters of Radiohead make songs that sound like Radiohead. There are a few moments on the record that surely could be mistaken for Radiohead. If you mix vinegar and baking soda you get a certain reaction, same can be said for Greenwood and Yorke.
The two-track run of “Open The Floodgates” and “Free In The Knowledge” remind me of “How to Disappear Completely” from Radiohead’s Kid A. “Free In The Knowledge” is the clearest representation of Yorke’s voice on the entire record as he sings over a strummed acoustic guitar “A face using fear / To try to keep control / When we get together / Well then, who knows?” The moment is weighted with the anxieties I have certainly felt after losing control of these past few pandemic years. Yorke’s soft falsetto delivers these verses so softly to my ears it’s difficult to not be entranced by him.
More energetic cuts on the record include the convulsive post-punk “We Don’t Know What Tomorrow Brings” and the tongue in cheek “You Will Never Work In Television Again”. On “Television” Yorke breaks into yells over jangled strums and crashing cymbals. The yelled opening lines “Fear not my love / He’s a fat fucking mist” match the intensity of the rumbling drums. The rocky-talky vibe on “We Don’t Know What Tomorrow Brings” fits well with the current swell in UK post-punk exports in the past year, including Yard Act, Wet Leg, Fontaines D.C. and many others. When The Smile departs from their sentimental exploits it’s a needed relief for listeners to build up steam for more challenging songs on the record.
The most challenging track on A Light For Attracting Attention is “Thin Thing”. Replete with repetitive synth arpeggios, the song’s intro is angular and panned hard to the left side of the mix. The synths hardly relent when an organ from my most macabre nightmares appears and quickly disappears. Then, the blurts of a farty bass make an inexplicable appearance later being replaced by another bass sound completely. The track comes together at the end with a guitar line that resembles the synths from the intro, but it sits in the dust rustled up from the commotion before it and I’m choking. The jumbled elements of this song make it seem like more of a doodle meant for the margins of the record.
The record’s final track “Skrting on the Surface” is a phoenix-like ballad that deconstructs and emerges powerfully in its reconstructions. The song’s persistent theme is the forces that lure us to give in our will. Yorke sings “we only have to click our fingers and we’ll disappear” invoking one’s control to exit at will, like a magician we could snap our fingers and perform our disappearing act. Perhaps, Yorke is referring to the phenomena of l’appel du vide (or “the call of the void”) a phrase that describes the feeling akin to being on a ledge and having the inexplicable urge to jump. “Skrting” approaches the ledge twice when instruments drop out and the song seems as if it will meekly fade out, only to rise with additional instrumentation. Yorke’s seemingly hopeless tone in the line “When we realize that we are broke and nothing mends” is contradicted by the addition of optimistic wind instruments that populate in the song’s bleakest moments. What Yorke is singing and what the music is telling us are distinct. In “Skrting”’s final moments Yorke wordlessly croons as the instruments reach their soaring peak until the songs end. The speechless falsetto feels hopeful compared to the cynical lyrics before it.
A Light for Attracting Attention contains a dynamic track listing, showcasing the trios strongest attributes. Tom Skinner shines brightly amid two songwriting legends, playing a tremendous supporting role. Further, Skinner’s drums foster calm on the most meditative tracks and is the driving force for the record’s energetic cuts. Yorke and Greenwood implement recognizable elements with great success, not sounding derivative or like tired reproductions of a bygone sound. The Smile feels at once familiar and new.