Upon learning that Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood were teaming up with Sons of Kemet drummer Tom Skinner to form the Smile, I speculated in an essay whether or not the new London jazz sound would rub off on the two Radiohead members. Greenwood and Yorke could, at the very least, take advantage of all the polyrhythms Skinner has to offer when usually playing in a band that utilizes two drummers. But as the Smile slowly started to release material over the internet in early 2022, that wasn’t really proving to be the case. Songs like “Skrting on the Surface”, and “Pana-vision” sounded too Radiohead-lite to justify Skinner’s involvement. Only the Smile’s pulverizing debut single “You Will Never Work in Television Again” had any strong rhythmic drive to it.
By the time the Smile released their debut album, A Light for Attracting Attention, six of the record’s 13 songs had already been released to the public. Now that all 13 songs are unleashed, we see a great deal more to the picture. As with most heavily nuanced pop/rock forms, first impressions can be misleading. And as is the case with most things Radiohead, the goods don’t leap out at you all at once.
A Light for Attracting Attention begins with a song named “The Same” and closely resembles the Thom Yorke song “Dawn Chorus” but with a steadier tempo. As a piano pulls up alongside the pulsating synthesizer, Yorke begs the listener to understand that “We are all the same.” The dynamics continue to grow, and every time Yorke sings the word “please”, it pierces just a little harder than it did the time before. Less a rallying cry for unity and more of a desperate gasp for understanding, “The Same” makes for an unsettling opener.
“The Opposite” follows, announcing Skinner’s arrival with an admirable impression of the late Tony Allen. After Yorke sings “lit up like a firework”, a crisscrossing of electric guitars grows into a thicket too tangled to follow. Whether or not there is a method to Greenwood’s madness here isn’t clear, but Yorke’s simple lesson of “Opposites attract” can’t be of a romantic variety when he follows up the lyric with “In ash and dust and pockets full of emptiness.”
By using the London Symphony Orchestra on tracks like “Speech Bubbles”, the Smile give their sound the extra depth that a keyboard just can’t provide, as Radiohead discovered on A Moon Shaped Pool. Skinner keeps it close to the chest by tapping on the toms for over half of the track. “Who will find a cab in the pouring rain?” Yorke asks as Skinner turns his attention to the snare while the strings puff out in the softest of swells. “Who will find a vein to put the needle in?” When a lyric like that takes hold, you realize that the Smile are more than just some quaint side project. There is a duality at play in the descending guitar figure of “A Hairdryer” that blends major key disaffection with minor scale gloom. The steadily-rising dissonance from the orchestra plays well off of Skinner’s intense hi-hat work, sending the song into the far reaches of outer space, where its atonality is also its resting point.
One of A Light for Attracting Attention’s most compelling moments may not feature Skinner at all. The somber acoustic number “Free In the Knowledge” is one such instance, where the guitar is supported by little more than subtle rays of light from the string section as Yorke soberly reflects that we are “Free in the knowledge / One day this will end / Free in the knowledge / That everything has changed.” After all these years, Yorke’s vocal range remains under his control as every note he hits on “Free In the Knowledge” hits all the right points.
Subtlety and strings are all well and good, but can the Smile rock? In their little obscure way, yes they can. The aforementioned “You Will Never Work in Television Again” isn’t the only song that drives up the tempo. The spidery guitar riff of “Thin Thing” is a perfect jumping-off point for the band to ratchet up the tension for lyrics like “Down a rabbit hole / We go / As the flames grow higher / For unbelievers.” “We Don’t Know What Tomorrow Brings” rides on a groove nearly identical to Radiohead’s “Jigsaw Falling into Place”, one that allows Greenwood to chime out guitar chords higher on the neck than normal. “It’s a terrible shame, I know / It’s a brutal game / I’m going to have to let you go / I’m stuck in a rut, and I can’t find my way out,” Yorke calls out with all the desperation of a mouse stuck in a maze.
As A Light for Attracting Attention comes to a rest with the delicately arpeggiated and horn flavored “Skrting on the Surface”, we are once again reminded that the Smile have a great deal more to do with Radiohead than with Sons of Kemet. That’s hardly a surprise, considering the personnel and Radiohead offshoots like Atoms for Peace can’t help but sound like Radiohead. On one level, this is a slight disappointment.
By allowing this minor disappointment to cloud your perception of the Smile, you’ll be missing out on an album of great musical depth and shading. True, it would have been nice if Yorke and Greenwood would have allowed themselves to be influenced by London’s fearlessly contemporary jazz scene. But if A Light for Attracting Attention is the tradeoff, then we all made out enormously well.