The Smile is not Radiohead, but you could be forgiven if you thought otherwise. Singer Thom Yorke and guitarist-arranger Jonny Greenwood are the essential sound of Radiohead. Yorke and Greenwood collaborated during lockdown, and what started as a splinter project has taken on a life of its own. Their new album, A Light for Attracting Attention, dropped May 13, and having added the drummer Tom Skinner, this trio sounds fully formed. That light may be attracting attention, but be careful. It leads to much numinous darkness, a sonic chiaroscuro.
Radiohead made its debut 30 years ago with “Creep,” a 90s classic of sublime self-laceration (“I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo. / What the hell am I doin’ here?”)—and that was just the beginning. The album OK Computer (1997) spoke to an audience that hated the technology it depended on, yet needed beauty more than ever. The music was heavenly, but lines such as “Her Hitler hairdo is making me feel ill” and “A handshake of carbon monoxide” were not exactly comforting. The band kept mutating, each album a new discovery. And when Greenwood created virtuosic Oscar-nominated film scores for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread and Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, it demonstrated that Radiohead had been creating pop-song-size symphonies all along.
And then, in May of 2021, Yorke and Greenwood became the Smile, naming themselves after a poem—same title—by the late Ted Hughes. As Yorke has said, this Smile is “not the smile as in ‘ahh’, more the smile as in the guy who lies to you every day.” Their new song “Pana-vision,” named for a motion-picture-equipment company, takes us through a lens: we see what Yorke sees, and we feel what he feels. It opens up with a piano phrase in a diminished scale, bewildering, enchanting, haunting. “My eyes are open wide / And then see you / Without your robes on / Without your crown.” Yorke, known more for petulance, is in awe, making movies in his head, both the spectator and the seduced. Greenwood’s strings come in, scoring the song, living up to its cinematic title.
The subject of “The Smoke,” another song from A Light for Attracting Attention, is apocalypse. It lulls you into a hypnotic groove while narrating something that sounds like seduction, then ends in flames. “Don’t mess with me / As I die in the flames / As I set myself on fire.” This album brims with pleasure, but tread carefully when you’re in the grip of that Ted Hughes smile. “With smiles that stole a bone,” writes Hughes. “And smiles that went off with a mouthful of blood / And smiles that left poison in a numb place.”
The Smile will come and go and leave some damage and bliss, and many will be grateful for it. Open wide for the European tour. On May 23, find your way to Stockholm. The Smile may be smiling at you, but the expression contains multitudes. Prepare to be stunned. —David Yaffe
A Light for Attracting Attention is out now. The Smile goes on tour in Europe through July 20
David Yaffe is a professor of humanities at Syracuse University. He writes about music and is the author, most recently, of Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell. You can read his Substack here