What Are You Smiling About?

In May of last year, three musicians step into a tent in England as part of Glastonbury’s socially distanced 2021 edition. The band, surprise-announced just days prior, is called The Smile and consists of Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, lead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, and drummer Tom Skinner of Sons of Kemet fame. The following set is an inspired if slightly weightless affair. The musicianship is impeccable, but the material seems unfinished and slightly scattershot. The whole affair is pretty surreal. Two members of Radiohead forming a new band would normally turn heads, but during the void year-vibes of 2021, it registers as barely more than another headline, another press photo, another livestream. Regrettably, most if not all discussion around the actual music centers around how similar or different it sounds to Radiohead, which does nothing to counteract the sense of unrealness that suffuses the entire project. The Smile do the only reasonable thing and disappear again for most of 2021, and even after they reappear with a series of eclectic singles and more livestreams, there is still the sense that this entire thing does not actually exist, and the question marks around what this project actually is are growing larger and larger, as does the impatience for answers.

Well, the wait is finally over. As of May 13th, The Smile have unleashed their debut record “A Light For Attracting Attention” in all its shambolic glory. We get it all: a slightly chaotic title, a weird-ass cover, and 13 tracks to figure out what the hell is going on. The Smile are, after all, real.

The elusive cover art.

Embracing The Seams

It turns out, then, that you can really judge a book by its cover. Every piece of art associated with The Smile has embraced imperfection, spontaneity, and counter-cultural aesthetics; it is visible in the cover art, in the stamped font, and especially in the handcrafted music videos by Bait director Mark Jenkin and the team behind The Wolf House. This approach carries over into the music: Safety rails are pulled back, imperfections embraced, and corners cut, which gives the album a raw and unfinished quality. From a writing standpoint, some ideas will sound familiar: the slower songs are the sort of morbid ambient suite Yorke has been dishing out effortlessly ever since he scored the Suspiria remake, while the guitar-heavy tracks employ the sort of knotty rhythms and syncopation that have become a trademark of Greenwood’s playing. But the excitement is in the way these songs are presented, in the ways those musicians use their newfound freedom to hone certain aspects of their craft and disregard others.

In the record’s strongest moments, this no nonsense approach produces mesmerising results. Open The Floodgates is the prettiest thing both Yorke and Greenwood have done in a long time, and it profits massively from the fact that the track never really moves beyond its initial set-up of piano, vocals and synthesizer. The Opposite never really goes anywhere, but the performances are so genuinely in the moment, the guitar playing so genuinely unhinged, that it doesn’t really matter. The newfound space also allows Yorke to flex his muscles as a writer again, which proves to be a highlight of the record. You Will Never Work In Television Again tackles harassment culture with the most Yorke lines imaginable, and manages to be both bizarre and prescient:

“He chews them up
He spits them out
it’s whats his name…
All those beautiful
Young hopes and dreams
Devoured by those
Evil eyes
And those peggy limbs”

Elsewhere, Thin Thing indulges in Ballard-esque observations about digital culture, the result perfectly pitched between frightening and hilarious:

“Down the rabbit hole
We go
As the flames grow higher
For unbelievers
Making mushrooms out of men”

Urgent And Anxious

The emotional current that connects all those songs is a genuine, terrified concern. Images of isolation, social unrest and hopelessness bleed through the seams of nearly every song.  Free In The Knowledge dreams of Soldiers on our backs, its pleading tone simultaneously hopeful and defeated, while The Same sounds like a requiem for the idea of unity itself.  These themes give the project an urgency and prescience that is sorely missed from most super groups, and they signify The Smile as something more than a flashy pastime.

The performances help further establish the atmosphere. The guitars on You Will Never Work In Television Again sound like they are spitting nails, perfectly painting Yorke’s bared teeth in sonics. The Smoke’s smooth-as-silk groove matches the despondent tone of the lyrics, as Yorke sings about someone so ignorant, they don’t care for a second opinion even as they go up in flames. For Free In The Knowledge, the record’s only song to come close to hopeful, The Smile dabble in folk, giving the song’s message a timeless and universal quality. In the context of the record, this stylistic charade pays off, because it allows the Smile to portray anger and despondency in all its facettes.

A Shapeshifting Record

The true north star of the record, however, is the listener. Previous knowledge of and interaction with The Smile and the musicians involved will fundamentally change the way one experiences A Light For Attracting Attention. Those familiar with the livestreams will find the album shockingly sparse, almost barren at times: Livestream favorite Thin Thing appears on the record in completely neutered form, slower, less dynamic, all alien vibes and sharp angles. The Opposite is an exciting guitar jam, but Radiohead fans will hear so much Identikit in its DNA, it practically sounds like a remix. I personally have no idea what The Smile sounds like to someone who is unaware of their members or promotional stunts (though I’ve heckled many a friend trying to find out), but I imagine a completely different experience compared to those in the know.

The Smile, shot by Alex Lake.

None of this is bad per se. The record is still good, excellent even, with or without any prior knowledge. But the point is that you will hear a different record depending on what you have heard before. Now, music and music discourse can never exist without context. But with The Smile, it sounds almost like the band is daring us to fill in the gaps ourselves at times.

This is music that only takes shape through listener participation. It is telling that Greenwood has referred to the record as more of an archival thing, something to catalog songs that exist primarily to be performed live. At the end of the day, A Light For Attracting Attention sounds more like a proof of existence than a definitive statement.

Instead of getting frustrated, take a step back and appreciate that you have been fooled again. In a truly hair-raising twist, The Smile have managed to release an album that further conceals their existence instead of clarifying it. Somewhat counter-intuitively, A Light For Attracting Attention illuminates nothing. These songs sound neither like definitive versions nor like alternative versions, and they also do not provide any idea of what the trio wants or where they are going. Just like the distorted map on its cover, their debut suggests order without providing it. The Smile, meanwhile, stay true to their name: You either turn away in disapproval or you keep staring, wondering what, if anything, is behind it.

The Smile’s A Light For Attracting Attention is out now on XL Recordings.