The Smile Might Be In This For The Long Haul
“Look at all the pretty lights,” Thom Yorke sang a few songs into the Smile’s concert on Monday, his feral falsetto repeating the phrase like a mantra against a surging electronic backdrop. He could have been referring to the giant, colorful rig of flickering bars set up onstage behind the band. It was an arena-scale contraption, something Yorke’s main band Radiohead might have brought with them on their most recent tour through the world’s most cavernous sheds. But this show was happening in a much more intimate setting, Detroit’s 4,650-capacity Masonic Temple. (“Intimate” is a relative term when discussing festival headliners.)
Yorke has been stepping away from Radiohead to play smaller venues for years, be it as a solo act or as part of the short-lived side band Atoms For Peace. The difference is this time he brought another member of Radiohead with him: Jonny Greenwood, the mad-scientist multi-instrumentalist and Oscar-nominated composer who has long been the most important member of the band besides Yorke. Together with drummer Tom Skinner, a fixture of London’s avant-garde jazz scene, they quietly formed the Smile in 2019. This May, after a year of gradually revealing themselves to the world, the band released their debut album A Light For Attracting Attention. Given the personnel involved, it inevitably sounded like Radiohead.
That resemblance was similarly inescapable onstage — they were mostly performing songs from the album, after all, and cycling through an array of instruments at gigs is nothing new for Yorke and Greenwood — but the differences between the two projects were more acute in concert. Whereas Radiohead tend toward fairly straightforward readings of their studio recordings, the Smile often stretched out the endings of their songs into incendiary jams and gorgeous tone poems. With Skinner behind the kit and opening act Robert Stillman sometimes accenting the music with his saxophone, the band moved with a jazzy fluidity without ever resembling “jazz-rock.” The spiky, funky, jittery guitar bangers that stand as the Smile’s main addition to Yorke and Greenwood’s arsenal felt even rangier and more volatile. Even on the songs that more directly called back to past glories — like the acoustic ballad “Free In The Knowledge,” the runaway-train rocker “We Don’t Know What Tomorrow Brings,” and the aforementioned rippling current “A Hairdryer” — there was a looseness in the new band’s performance not afforded to the larger, more lumbering Radiohead live operation.
One is not necessarily better than the other; there are few concert experiences more thrilling than being swallowed up by Radiohead classics alongside thousands of fellow devotees, like a city beset by tsunami. But it’s clear Yorke and Greenwood are very excited about their current endeavor and that the Smile’s momentum is full speed ahead right now. Midway through the show, Yorke announced, “We’ve made one record, and now we’re writing another one,” a conclusion anyone could have drawn based on how many new songs slipped into the setlist. They were incredible songs, too, arguably better than the ones on the album — and once again, they could easily pass for Radiohead if Yorke and Greenwood had not chosen to work on them in this context instead.
The Smile seems to have unshackled and invigorated Yorke. Monday night, you could hear his enthusiasm in the roaring inferno of “You Will Never Work In Television Again” and the fragile, spectral beauty of “Open The Floodgates,” in the frenetic sideways assault of “Thin Thing” and the windswept elegance of “Skrting On The Surface.” The renewed inspiration was even more apparent on new titles that further expanded the Smile’s stylistic range. “Read The Room” shapeshifted from a doomy groove to noodly krautrock that resolved into nimble power-pop. “Colours Fly” wrung apocalyptic tension from Greenwood’s piercing Afro-pop riffs. The eight-minute epic “Bending Hectic” spent most of its runtime floating through a dream a la Jimi Hendrix’s “One Rainy Wish” before exploding into wide-open power chords like “Pyramid Song” gone full Spacehog; “People On Balconies” reminded me of “Pyramid Song” too, as filtered through the Randy Newman songbook.
How many artists 30 years into their career could satisfy their audience with a set of virtually all new music? When the lights came up Monday night, I didn’t leave wishing that I could have heard my old favorites. I was buzzing over the possibilities of the future. That likely would not have been possible without a new name and a reconfigured lineup, nor could I have seen Yorke playing rock music in such close confines. The reboot has removed the Radiohead albatross from band and fans alike. In 2017, when asked if Radiohead would be ending after the tour supporting A Moon Shaped Pool, Yorke told Rolling Stone, “I fucking hope not.” Me too, Thom. Yet it’s hard to deny the vitality of the music he and Greenwood are making after getting out from under the weight of that legacy. I hate to say it, but we need to consider the possibility that Radiohead will not be returning for a long time. We also need to consider the possibility that this is a good thing.
“Free In The Knowledge”
“Waving A White Flag”
“We Don’t Know What Tomorrow Brings”
“Skrting On The Surface”
“People On Balconies”
“You Will Never Work In Television Again”
“Open The Floodgates”
“Read The Room”
“Feeling Pulled Apart By Horses”