Thom Yorke’s band the Smile take their name from one of Ted Hughes’s “Crow” poems, where smiles are malign forces that can steal “a mouthful of blood”. But another smile lurks behind much of the Radiohead singer’s work. There’s a clue in the phrases “spin with a grin” and “a grin like roadkill” that litter his journals from the late 1990s and early 2000s. According to Yorke, when he was a climate change campaigner in 2003, during the Iraq War, the British prime minister was desperate to meet him, but he refused. Even for the sake of saving the planet, he could not face the spectral, toothsome smile of Tony Blair.
Though Radiohead are not an expressly political band, their bitter disappointment with New Labour – which “hijacked” the UK version of Rock the Vote, which the group had supported, and then “betrayed all who supported them except those friendly business interests” as Yorke wrote in 2001 – informed the dystopias of OK Computer, Kid A and Amnesiac. In 2006, the first single from The Eraser, Yorke’s debut solo record, was “Harrowdown Hill”, a quietly furious song about the death of the weapons inspector David Kelly.
In the Smile – a trio with the Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood and jazz drummer Tom Skinner – Yorke’s lyrics have followed a long-term drift towards abstraction, but his critique of corporate greed, climate complacency and self-serving politics is still present. In the new album, Wall of Eyes, the band’s second, “Whining drones” are put together with fishermen’s dragnets; the “crashing currency” with “candy aerosols”. Covid contracts and cronyism are in the air when he asks, “All of that money, where did it go? In somebody’s pocket? A friend of a friend.”
The Smile project, born out of lockdown, has enabled Yorke and Greenwood to release bottled up musical ideas, with Skinner’s kinetic drumming and Nigel Godrich’s production stopping them from floating into the ether. The obsessive, perfectionist Thom Yorke who once wrote out 40 different versions of the lyrics to “Paranoid Android” has long gone: music for him, as he said in 2017, is no longer “an insatiable hunger to find something” but is about “the process”.
That’s not to say the Smile’s songs are dashed-off sketches. The new album’s title track, with its acoustic guitar strumming in 5/4 time, is layered with strings and muffled eruptions of distortion in a rising and falling pattern – as nerve-fraying as the ascending, multi-octave “Shepard tone” deployed in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. “Bending Hectic”, the story of a car crash unfolding over eight minutes, begins with a delicate constellation of finger-picking and cymbals and becomes a deliciously crunchy old-school rock-out. But there’s an energy, self-assurance, and, even in its intricate moments, a lack of fussiness that suggest three musicians having, for want of a better word, fun.
It’s a relief to see Yorke – now 55, grey-bearded and married for a second time – at last finding some serenity in his art. The sardonically titled 1998 documentary Meeting People Is Easy – charting the OK Computer world tour – reveals just how traumatic he once found Radiohead’s spectacular success. After a show, the rest of the band joins a party in their honour while he paces the dressing room alone. He either recoils from interviewers or lectures them on third-world debt.
“What I ended up writing about,” he has said of that era, “was the fact that I felt very little connection with my fellow human beings.” Yorke has since learned to better relate to fans, who once baffled him with their outpourings of emotion over songs that described an absence of it. But he will never be a Bono, glad-handing world leaders, or a Springsteen, chowing down with his disciples. Alienation remains his defining theme. The video to “Wall of Eyes”, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, shows Yorke pacing the streets, retreating into a phone box, eating alone. He eventually finds company – but as the camera pans across the bar, it shows he is talking to himself, in a row of replicant Thoms. Meeting people continues to be uneasy.
Yorke’s politics, too – shaped by Thatcher, New Labour and the Iraq War, Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Extremes and Naomi Klein’s No Logo – continue to inform his work, however obscurely. As for the profiteering hucksters and power-hungry hawks who haunt his songs – Thom Yorke would be the first to remind you that one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.
Wall of Eyes
XL Recordings, 26 January
[See also: All of Us Strangers makes the personal universal]
This article appears in the 24 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Media Wars