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13 May 2022

Thom Yorke’s the Smile sound a lot like Radiohead – and that’s no bad thing

This is a sublime record that shows the benefits of only slightly rearranging a tried and tested formula.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Listening to A Light for Attracting Attention, I can’t help but wonder what Thom Yorke thinks of the rest of us.

Radiohead fans will not be surprised that this music, these lyrics (“We set ourselves on fire”, “Devastation has come”, “We don’t know what tomorrow brings”) are timely and anxiety-ridden. But the issues that Yorke sings about here — environmental collapse, political corruption, public apathy — are ones he has warned of, in his music and his public life, for decades. They remain his topics of choice now they have found mainstream attention. How has he remained so steadfast, so assured and so patient? A less noble songwriter would have grown bored long ago.

The practical shake-up of his music-making may have helped. Although A Light for Attracting Attention (released on 13 May on XL) sounds very much like a Radiohead record, it is not. It’s the debut album by the Smile, which comprises Yorke, his Radiohead songwriting partner and instrumental virtuoso Jonny Greenwood, and the drummer Tom Skinner, best known for his work with the British jazz group Sons of Kemet. The Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich — often referred to as the sixth member of the band — adds his distinctive glow to these tracks too. 

Maybe this set-up feels new to Yorke, even if the record does not feel new to us. But not new is not bad, and though a fresh moniker does not result in an innovative, divergent sound, this is a sublime record that proves that sticking to one course of action and only rearranging the formula slightly — as though re-tying the same knot — can pay off.

There is a gentleness to many of these tracks. “We’re just skirting on the surface,” Yorke sings, his voice ever so light, on a song previously performed by both Radiohead and Atoms For Peace (another Yorke project). On “Speech Bubbles” his falsetto hangs over the string-led instrumentation like a jacket draped over shoulders. These moments are captivating, but it’s a comparative thrill to hear the band really let loose on “You Will Never Work in Television Again”, on which Yorke addresses a Jeffrey Epstein-like figure with a real snarl. “All those beautiful young hopes and dreams/Devoured by those evil eyes and those piggy limbs,” he sings atop ruthless drums.

Yorke anticipates his critics by asking himself what good is writing music about all these crises all over again, scrutinising the usefulness of his craft. “The record doesn’t heal us,” he sings over a delectably prickly Greenwood bassline on “Thin Thing”. “Don’t bore us/Get to the chorus,” Yorke calls languorously over keys on “Open the Floodgates”, before Greenwood’s guitars circle around each other, eliding and then diverging in the style of Steve Reich. 

It is easy to imagine Yorke releasing many more consistently good albums, each with new collaborators, and under different names, for the rest of his career. His sonic temperament, steady for almost two decades, remains enthralling to him and his legions of fans. Is he content with that? On “Free in the Knowledge”, a perfectly wrought acoustic ballad in the vein of Radiohead’s “True Love Waits”, Yorke admits to his human fragility and mortality. “Free in the knowledge/That one day this will end,” he sings, watching freedom set over the horizon.

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