The Smile
Photo: Frank Lebon / XL Recordings

The Smile Prioritize Grace and Restraint on ‘Wall of Eyes’

The Smile’s second record jettisons the post-punk energy of their debut in favor of a cohesive statement that’s glacially paced and texturally dense.

Wall of Eyes
The Smile
XL Recordings
26 January 2024

Nearing 30 years old, at the precipice of worldwide fame, Thom Yorke sang a happy song about suicide. Over chiming guitar and glockenspiel, “No Surprises” responds to the phenomenon of lifelong suffering with a comforting, Nietzschean alternative. He was perhaps too young then to recognize the naïveté of the sentiment or too much of a storm inside to reject its foolishness.

Then, around its release as the fourth single of OK Computer, Yorke and his bandmates in Radiohead would become internationally-recognized rock stars, and the real suffering began. “When I was a kid, I always assumed that [fame] was going to answer something – fill a gap,” he offered to Dazed in 2013. And it does the absolute opposite.”

“No Surprises” continues to be one of Yorke’s (and multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood’s) most popular compositions. Yet, it’s hard to imagine the aged Yorke and Greenwood writing such a song. In the time since, they’ve spent half their lives recoiling from the pressure of being some of rock’s most celebrated innovators, searching for new ways to reaffirm their roles, exploring dance music, Indian symphonic music, and mid-50s heartbreak-laden pop. Now in their mid-50s, Yorke and Greenwood have the wisdom and the luxury to pace themselves, perhaps not wholly complacent but more comfortable than ever with the hand that life has dealt them. During a performance behind Bob Boilen’s desk at NPR, as one-third of the Smile, Yorke donned ridiculous ruby sunglasses and joked between songs: “These are what you wear when you’re old and a rock star,” he quipped, conjuring Bono.

To age gracefully is to achieve a net positive; it is to maintain growth without destroying yourself, as we tend to do as young people. One could argue that Yorke and Greenwood have aged about as gracefully as anyone in their rare circumstances has. Yorke might disagree. In that interview with Dazed, he claims to embody his favorite Tom Waits-ism: “I wish to age disgracefully”, but the proof is in the sound. Throughout their disparate excursions into capturing beauty in sound, a through-line persists: daisy-chained minor chords, woozy electronics, swooping strings, and anxious lyrical impressions paradoxically swirling with cynicism and lightness. If that is the proven alchemy between these two specific musicians, then it is within the bounds of that alchemy that the Smile’s second record, Wall of Eyes, soars. It’s as focused a statement as Yorke and Greenwood have offered, and it is presented with such grace and care as to be a high watermark in both of their oeuvres.

Taken as a whole, the album is a measured progression from the jazz-inflected, letterboxed post-punk introduced on 2022’s A Light for Attracting Attention. Where that record impatiently stuffed a series of disparate ideas into its runtime, Wall of Eyes comes across as a more cohesive project than its older, wilder sibling. Its pace is unhurried, and its songs favor compositional restraint over sheer energy. The opening title track feels representative of this approach. Over acoustic guitar strums and Skinner’s subterranean tom hits, Yorke embodies the funny little old man singing songs on your smartphone screen, wilting under your scrutiny. Its tempo, atmosphere, and ominous strings recall “Dollars and Cents” from Radiohead’s Amnesiac, but while that song felt overbearingly claustrophobic in its cavernous reverb, “Wall of Eyes” exists in an open field, and its strings never quite crowd the air. It also refuses to climax. Even during its dynamic apex, when Greenwood’s twinkling harmonics fill the ears, it ends unresolved.

The majority of Wall of Eyes’ songs groove with nebulous destinations and follow suit. They often hide details that slide off the ears at first blush but surface once the novelty dissipates. “Teleharmonic”, which debuted during the Peaky Blinders finale, glides so effortlessly that it may seem like it ends out of nowhere. That’s Greenwood, once again, as a master of texture. Buried underneath his droning synths and Yorke’s featherweight vocals is a cache of entrancing details. On a higher octave, a parallel line of synths emerges overhead, and as Yorke raises his voice to match the emotion, Pete Wareham’s flute flitters like a hummingbird right next to it. It, like the slow-moving raincloud of “I Quit” and the fragile, piano-led “You Know Me”, progress organically and elegantly; even for seasoned musicians, that’s serendipity at work.

It’s smart for a band whose distinction from one of the most impactful rock groups ever rests with Skinner – a drummer with arguably defter, more musical sticking than Philip Selway – to embrace establishing atmosphere rather than keeping up the higher-octane energy of tracks like “Thin Thing” or “You Will Never Work in Television Again”. Skinner’s capacity to add the right amount of color and oomph to Yorke’s and Greenwood’s sonics can’t be understated. “Read the Room” wouldn’t feel nearly as circus-like if not for Skinner’s snare rolls and careful crashes. “Circus-like” also makes a fitting environment for Yorke’s excoriations of the technocracy. (“Maybe I can’t be arsed /This crashing currency,” he wails, the track’s title easily dedicated to the crypto bros.) Elsewhere, on “You Know Me”, Skinner’s presence is barely detectable but still significant, his drums floating like driftwood on Yorke’s sunlit sea.

Because of Skinner’s distinct role in the Smile and his comparatively lighter baggage, Yorke and Greenwood fuse into one entity. As on A Light for Attracting Attention, it’s tough to tell who is playing who, although Greenwood’s orchestral composing is unmistakable, and nobody strings together minor chords on an acoustic quite like Yorke. It’s arguably Greenwood’s show here, as his gifts at supplying pathos through diverse instrumentation have rarely been more prevalent. His touches are entrancing: the panned guitar squeaks on “I Quit”; the trapeze-like guitar slides on “Read the Room”; the slap-picked guitar on “Under Our Pillows”, which immediately recalls A Light’s “Thin Thing” until the whole track dissolves into monodic miasma. But the cinematic violin rushes on the Beatlesque “Friend of a Friend” would hit as hard with Yorke’s tender everyman, his words conjuring cloistered hallways of Italian balconies. That’s the je ne sais quoi inescapable from anything they work together on. 

Few others could put together a song like “Bending Hectic”, Wall of Eyes‘ eight-minute centerpiece and among the Smile’s finest compositions. Greenwood plucks sets of arpeggios and strains the strings while Skinner skitters across the drum sets as the song unspools like a film reel. In the chorus, Yorke alludes to Hamlet in a definitive counter to the puerile, insecure negativity of his earlier songs. “I’ve got these slings / I’ve got these arrows,” he sings before accepting his lot: “I’ll force myself to turn.” Rushing toward an apocalypse, he infamously forewarned, the once purveyor of undignified death, at last, chooses life.

RATING 8 / 10