Radiohead Spinoff the Smile Gets Wonderfully Stranger

“Don’t think you know me,” Thom Yorke intones near the end of the Smile’s second studio album, “Wall of Eyes.” He adds, “Don’t think that I am everything you say.” With its new LP, the Smile makes itself increasingly elusive. It’s now a band intent on destabilizing structures and dissolving expectations.

The Smile is still unmistakably a Radiohead spinoff. It’s the trio of Yorke and Jonny Greenwood from Radiohead, with the British jazz drummer Tom Skinner. Yorke’s tormented voice has stayed upfront, and the songwriting leans into Radiohead’s dissonances, odd meters and fully enveloping aura of anxiety.

The Smile’s 2022 debut album, “A Light for Attracting Attention,” and its live recordings introduced what was mostly a stripped-down, cerebrally twisted funk band — akin to Yorke’s 2012 project Atoms for Peace, which had Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers on bass. But on “Wall of Eyes,” the Smile questions and undermines its grooves. The band often lets them emerge only gradually, then deflates them or obscures them in complexly hazy productions.

In the Smile’s new songs, solid ground — verbal or musical — is rare and precarious. The priority is atmosphere, not legibility. Yorke’s lyrics are fragmentary and bleak, full of apocalyptic tidings. “Soon you’ll be there/in all that fire and ice,” he croons in “Teleharmonic,” over chords that keep sliding out from under him. The album’s most coherent narrative, “Bending Hectic,” is the last words of a driver steering along the hairpin turns of an Italian mountain road, then “letting go of the wheel.” The track is an eight-minute exercise in suspended time, meditating on two slowly alternating chords before plunging into a cacophony of hard-rock guitars.

Greenwood has long had a sideline scoring film soundtracks — among them “There Will Be Blood,” “Phantom Thread” and “The Power of the Dog” — and the Smile’s new songs allow themselves to be as amorphous and open-ended as film music. They’re not about hooks or choruses. Melodies recur while arrangements change radically around them; songs suddenly leap into entirely new territory.

“Read the Room” begins with prickly guitar arpeggios and a sputtering beat, veers into a pretty bridge that doesn’t stay that way and spends its final two minutes seething over an entirely different riff. “Under Our Pillows,” which may be a reproach of social media — “You give yourself freely/Nowadays everyone’s for sharing,” Yorke chides — starts with crisp cross-rhythms: hopscotching guitar picking and a contrapuntal bass line over Skinner’s stop-start drumming. But the momentum shifts, the odd meter turns into a motoric 4/4 and then recedes into un-metered, breathy spaces. For a full minute, the track is nervous but ambient. Throughout the album, the Smile’s music feels molten and improvisatory, though it’s clearly premeditated.

Greenwood’s film scores often deploy orchestral arrangements, and so does the Smile. Half of the album’s new songs are overlaid with strings played by the London Contemporary Orchestra — occasionally for sumptuousness, but more often to create tension and harmonic ambiguity. Some songs end with a full minute of cloudy orchestral sounds, every one of them calibrated.

Perhaps Radiohead’s internal decision-making grew too weighty or complicated. It’s easier to work as a trio than as an arty but arena-filling, much-scrutinized institution. In “Friend of a Friend,” Yorke sings, “I can go anywhere that I want/I just got to turn myself inside out and back to front.” For the Smile, that could be a mission statement, from a band determined to evolve in its own ways.

The Smile
“Wall of Eyes”
(XL)

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