Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: The Smile Wall Of Eyes


They’re just messing around. That’s a good thing. The freedom to explore without the burden of expectations is healthy — enjoyable for the listener, too, if you have interest in hearing some of music’s most singular talents hard at play.

Am I overstating the loose, carefree vibe of Wall Of Eyes, the second album from the Smile in under two years? Probably. This is a release that features eerie string arrangements by Jonny Greenwood, and opener/title track “Wall Of Eyes” finds Thom Yorke basically reenacting the final scene of Don’t Look Up, where a solemn, defeated Leonardo DiCaprio raises a toast to humanity’s good old days in the final moments before extinction. Some songs build to calamitous finales or linger in quiet despair. In short, we’re still dealing with the Radiohead dudes here, and prestige melancholy follows them like the cloud of dirt that lingers around Pigpen.

Yet even more so than their 2022 debut album A Light For Attracting Attention, the Smile’s sophomore LP feels like a shaking off of the pressure that comes with recording a new album with your world-renowned rock band. Yorke found similar liberty a decade ago with Atoms For Peace, a one-and-done side project in which his solo backing band grew into a funky, jammy electronic rock group. In the Smile, he gets to scratch a similar itch alongside Greenwood, his greatest musical partner, while still avoiding the albatross of New Radiohead Music. Plus, on drums, they upgrade from the tasteful, stellar Philip Selway to Tom Skinner, a young virtuoso from London’s avant-jazz scene. The result is three mad scientists turned loose onstage and in-studio, following their muse wherever it leads.

I’m sure the joy of sonic exploration was involved in Radiohead — you don’t pile up such a rewarding catalog without abundant eureka moments — but their last couple records sounded so labored and weary, even compared to the famously depressive masterworks the band built its legend on. The King Of Limbs and especially A Moon Shaped Pool struck a grave, apocalyptic mood; they seemed weighed down by a heaviness that might just as easily have stemmed from global crises or one band’s struggle to live up to past glories. From the beginning, the Smile have cut against that tendency. A Light For Attracting Attention repurposed some old Radiohead outtakes and sounded enough like a new Radiohead LP that I wondered why it wasn’t, yet the unhinged rock energy of “You Will Never Work In Television Again” and tweaked rhythmic experiments like “The Opposite” and “Thin Thing” suggested a giddy, revitalized creative process. That essence was magnified on tour, where the core trio lineup prohibited the dense, closely choreographed, arena-scale bombast of a Radiohead show, lending itself instead to wiry jam sessions and the improvisational flair of jazz. Even when it’s soft and somber, the music breathes.

Wall Of Eyes keeps that feeling going. The Smile wrote much of it on tour and road-tested the material for months before hitting the studio. They also subbed out longtime Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, who helmed the Smile’s debut, for Sam Petts-Davies, who engineered A Moon Shaped Pool and co-produced some of Yorke’s recent solo music. But it’s hard to say whether that contributes to the sense of the Smile stepping further away from the Radiohead template into their own territory. The raw materials still resemble Radiohead, especially the acoustic-led “Wall Of Eyes,” which comes off like a bossa nova cousin to queasy Amnesiac tracks like “Knives Out” and “Dollars And Cents.” But the album stands out for the way its songs resemble the outgrowth of a living organism rather than compositions pieced together.

In several instances, that means the Smile navigate from disparate starting points toward a krautrock skyline. Such is the case on “Read The Room,” which segues from a lumbering processional into some nutso Skinner fills and a soaring, hypnotic denouement, and “Under Our Pillows,” Greenwood’s latest spiky Afropop exercise, which similarly achieves liftoff before concluding with some majestic drone. The band charts an entirely different course on “Friend Of A Friend,” a throwback piano-pop tune that masterfully shifts tone and texture with each new pass through its central chord progression. It might be the closest Yorke ever comes to Randy Newman, Ben Folds, or, given the song’s “A Day In The Life” string section, Paul McCartney. “I could go anywhere, but I won’t,” Yorke sings on that one, in one of the more interpersonal-sounding lyrics on the album. “Just gotta turn myself inside out, back to front.” These three songs, which appear consecutively in the middle of the tracklist, represent the album’s absolute peak. Taken together, they’re proof that the Smile’s surreal, constantly morphing style can work for multi-part epics, down-the-middle pop songs, and whatever lies between.

Despite the amplified live-band dynamic, Wall Of Eyes is an overall less explosive album than A Light For Attracting Attention. This one spends a couple songs waking up, easing you in with “Wall Of Eyes” and “Teleharmonic” (which subtly brings together celestial vocals, soulful bass, rippling synth, and tumbling drums) before properly blasting off. There’s nothing as in-your-face as “You’ll Never Work In Television Again” or even the synth sprint “We Don’t Know What Tomorrow Brings.” Flickering deep cut “I Quit” is probably the most forgettable offering between the two Smile LPs so far. And when the band does erupt, as on lead single “Bending Hectic” — the latest in Yorke’s lineage of amazing songs about car accidents — they test your patience with six minutes of slow-drift scene-setting before the transcendent payoff. The song meanders too much for my liking, but when the distortion rains down and Yorke and Greenwood wail away on guitar like they haven’t since The Bends? Hoo boy. I’ll eat my vegetables for a dessert like that.

This is a fun phase for Yorke and Greenwood, and I’m glad to witness it, but I do hope they get back to Radiohead at some point. These Smile albums are unlocking fresh thrills from old favorites, but they’re also making me appreciate what Selway, Ed O’Brien, and especially bassist Colin Greenwood bring to the table alongside Thom and Jonny. I miss the alchemy that comes from those five musicians in particular, and I miss the high-stakes, legacy-building pomp and circumstances inherent to Radiohead records. I also wouldn’t mind seeing that back catalog performed live again. Still, the Smile is where the juice is right now, and I can’t begrudge those guys from pouring their energy into this band when it leads to an album as fascinating as Wall Of Eyes.

Wall Of Eyes is out 1/26 via XL.

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