Album Of The Week

Album Of The Week: The Smile A Light For Attracting Attention

XL
2022
XL
2022

The more I heard from A Light For Attracting Attention, the more the question gnawed at me: Why isn’t this a Radiohead album?

Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood are under no obligation to make music with Colin Greenwood, Phil Selway, and Ed O’Brien. But historically Thom and Jonny have been the two most important creative forces in Radiohead, and the Smile — their new band with drummer Tom Skinner — more often than not sounds like Radiohead, as any song-based partnership between these people is bound to sound at this late date. Production by Nigel Godrich, a key architect of the Radiohead aesthetic in his own right, obviously further underlines that similarity, but Godrich worked on all of Yorke’s solo albums and the Atoms For Peace record too. Bringing Jonny Greenwood into the side-project fold feels different — like the Mad Men season 3 finale when Don Draper and the gang sneakily launch a new agency and leave the old one to die. That might be an entirely incorrect read on the situation, but without knowing how the Smile came together and how the other Radiohead guys feel about it, a little part of me is uneasy about this project and what it says about the state of my favorite band.

That said, unease has always been a crucial component of the Radiohead experience — literally since “Creep” — and setting sentimentality aside, it’s hard to argue with results. A Light For Attracting Attention, out this Friday, is a fantastic addition to the Radiohead extended universe and the best non-Radiohead album Yorke has ever released. I’ll spare you my granular fanboy discography rankings (the true sickos can hash it out with me on Twitter) but in short, this one falls short of masterpiece status while delivering enough thrills to hang with the bottom half of the Radiohead catalog. In spirit and practice it most resembles Hail To The Thief, less a coherent statement than a rummage bin of styles and ideas. The last couple songs even feel like direct callbacks to that album: The bass-powered synth-rocker “We Don’t Know What Tomorrow Brings” is like “Where I End And You Begin” blaring from a runaway train, while closer “Skrting On The Surface” evokes “Scatterbrain” with an elegant brass section. And at least as often as on Hail To The Thief, the results of that mishmash are inspired.

My fellow percussion novices might not hear significant differences between the impeccable drumming of Tom Skinner — best known as a member of Shabaka Hutchings’ soca- and Afrobeat-infused experimental jazz group Sons Of Kemet — and his Radiohead counterpart Phil Selway. Selway is a brilliant musician who has always been game to do whatever the song demands; his beats have defied gravity more than once. But working with a new creative foil seems to have unlocked a scrappy energy in Yorke and Greenwood. The more rock-oriented tracks boast a visceral rawness rarely heard from these guys, and maybe not at all since In Rainbows tracks like “Bodysnatchers” and “Jigsaw Falling Into Place.” On songs like the magnificently funky “The Opposite” and the hyperactive “Thin Thing,” spiky guitar riffs that remind me of Mdou Moctar bend and tangle into knotty choreography. Debut single “You Will Never Work In Television Again” is the kind of bashed-out inferno I didn’t know Yorke had in him. When the Smile let it rip like that, they almost could pass for a garage band; when they lock into an easygoing groove on “The Smoke,” I’m reminded of The Private Press by Yorke’s old influence and collaborator DJ Shadow.

But far be it from Yorke and Greenwood to make it a power-trio record, as appealing as that prospect may be. Skinner brings with him a slew of heavyweights from London’s experimental jazz scene, including Sons Of Kemet bandmate Theon Cross (tuba) and his brother Nathaniel (trombone) plus big-deal saxophonists Jason Yarde, Robert Stillman (sometimes on clarinet), and Chelsea Carmichael (on flute here) among others. That crew plus Greenwood’s pals from the London Contemporary Orchestra ensure the Smile can flesh out their core sound into ornate splendor when they so choose. Sometimes that means a return to the orchestral swirl of Radiohead’s most recent album, 2016’s A Moon Shaped Pool, as on the loping, piano-led “Pana-vision” (a cousin to rhythmically complex yet melancholy tracks like “Decks Dark” and “The Numbers”), the gorgeous “Open The Floodgates” (a sonic sequel to the spectral “Daydreaming”), and the breathtaking “Speech Bubbles” (a more desolate “Present Tense”). The best of these symphonic exercises hearkens back much farther: The acoustic ballad “Free In The Knowledge” is the closest thing to “Fake Plastic Trees” you’re bound to get from Yorke 27 years on from The Bends.

And then there are the electronic tracks, which fit into this jumble more awkwardly but which mostly prove their worth. “The Same,” by far the standout of this cohort, opens the album without Skinner’s assistance: just Yorke and Greenwood methodically piling on layers of synth and guitar and piano to the point of cacophony, like you’re the frog and they’re slowly boiling you to death. It reads like a protest song, or at least a song of solidarity with protesters. Yorke scoffs at the “simple ass motherfuckers” who make “one mistake after another” and proclaims, “People in the streets/ Please/ We are all the same/ Please/ We all want the same.” Meanwhile the skittering, flickering “A Hairdryer” and the synth arpeggio dirge “Waving A White Flag” could have been airlifted in from Yorke’s solo debut The Eraser, and despite their competent execution, they’re deep cuts here for a reason. The closer the album gets to the live-band alchemy witnessed in the Smile’s livestreamed gigs from Magazine London, the more compelling it becomes.

As a lyricist, Yorke remains a poetic town cryer, inscrutable and arresting in equal measure. On A Light For Attracting Attention, he returns to his well-worn themes like corrupt power and environmental disaster with fresh vigor. “You Will Never Work In Television Again” applies the vitriol from “Paranoid Android” to the entertainment industry — “fat fucking mist,” “piggy limbs,” and all. Modern life is reframed as an absurd game on “The Opposite” and “We Don’t Know What Tomorrow Brings.” Allusions to apocalypse and dystopia abound, usually via a string of vivid word-pictures that conjure a vibe and leave you to contemplate the rest, as if Yorke is splattering the canvas with one Rorshach blot after another. He keeps coming back to the idea of letting go, moving on, and finding a way forward — by accepting our circumstances and banding together, but also through unsettling avenues like setting yourself on fire or letting yourself be pulled beneath the ice. His last words on the album: “When we realize that we are broke and nothing mends/ We can drop under the surface.”

Despite the often-bleak imagery, A Light For Attracting Attention is not a hopeless or defeated document. Compared to most of Yorke and Greenwood’s work, this stuff comes off as almost… fun? The band name is a reference to a Ted Hughes poem — “not the smile as in ‘ahh,’ the smile as in the guy who lies to you every day,” Yorke has explained — but perhaps there’s a less ironic reading of it too. Although these songs often sound like Radiohead, they also come off like a new band feeling each other out, having a blast figuring out what works and how each member fits into the whole. There’s a looseness and freeness to it that I can’t really imagine Yorke and Greenwood bringing to a Radiohead album in 2022, as if the weight that accompanies that band’s every gesture has been thrown off their shoulders. Maybe that’s why this is not a Radiohead album, and maybe this exercise will reap rewards whenever Radiohead reconvene. Until then, A Light For Attracting Attention is a reward in its own right.

A Light For Attracting Attention is out 5/13 on XL. Pre-order it below.

Other albums of note out this week:

• Kendrick Lamar’s Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers
• Florence + The Machine’s Dance Fever
• Quelle Chris’ DEATHFAME
• Kevin Morby’s This Is A Photograph
• Moderat’s More D4ta
• The Black Keys’ Dropout Boogie
• Lyle Lovett’s 12th Of June
• The Chainsmokers’ So Far So Good
• Ethel Cain’s Preacher’s Daughter
• Say Sue Me’s The Last Thing Left
• Mallrat’s Butterfly Blue
• Mandy Moore’s In Real Life
• Van Morrison’s What’s It Gonna Take?
• Craig David’s 22
• Becky G’s ESQUEMAS
• Obongjayar’s Some Nights I Dream Of Doors
• Former Empire Of The Sun guy Luke Steele’s Listen To The Water
• Tank And The Bangas’ Red Balloon
• Akron/Family member Dana Buoy’s Experiments In Plant-Based Music: Vol. I
• Bear’s Den’s Blue Hours
• Ye Vagabonds’ Nine Waves
• Gospel’s The Loser
• Yves Jarvis’ The Zug
• Gentle Sinners’ These Actions Cannot Be Undone
• RLYR’s self-titled album
• Sonny Singh’s Chardi Kala
• Mutually Assured Destruction’s Ascension
• Delbert McClinton’s Outdated Emotion
• The PC Music / Volume 3 compilation
• The mysterious Max Creeps’ Nein
• The Rolling Stones’ Live At The El Mocambo
• TOPS’ Empty Seats EP
• Emma Ruth Rundle’s Electric Guitar Two: Dowsing Voice EP
• Circuit Des Yeux’s Live From Chicago EP
• Raavi’s It Grows On Trees EP
• Primitive Man’s Insurmountable EP
• FredAtLast’s Banner Of Lost Belief EP

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