As with any side-project or solo album by a member of a celebrated band, the first question prompted by the Smile’s debut is: why? There are plenty of reasonable stock answers: an opportunity to do something entirely different; a surfeit of material that either couldn’t be fitted into the schedule of a major band or was perhaps received with something less than enthusiasm by its other members; an invigorating chance to play with different musicians. These are categories that virtually every Radiohead offshoot thus far fits into, from Jonny Greenwood’s award-winning film scores and excursions into modern classical music to Thom Yorke’s solo albums, to Yorke and longstanding Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich’s band Atoms for Peace.
The Smile, however, present more of a conundrum. There have been no accompanying band interviews and little in the way of advance information: Yorke, Greenwood and drummer Tom Skinner – best known as a member of jazz quartet Sons of Kemet – just appeared, playing in what looked like a cowshed during the 2021 Glastonbury livestream. To compound any questions about exactly what was going on here, where one project ends and another begins, or what made this different from Radiohead beyond the personnel, they played one song, Skrting on the Surface, which had already been performed by both Radiohead and Atoms for Peace.
Said questions go largely unanswered by A Light for Attracting Attention, on which Skrting on the Surface reappears. There’s no getting around the fact it sounds exactly like Radiohead: more so than Yorke’s impressionistic, sketchy solo albums, more so than the Afrobeat-infused Atoms for Peace. A lot of their trademark sounds are present and correct: eerie, unsettling electronica (The Same), off-beam piano ballads along the lines of Pyramid Song (Pana-vision), songs where the melody is carried more by the bass or guitar than Yorke’s keening vocals (the brilliant, anxiously funky The Smoke).
So are their lyrical preoccupations. There is environmental catastrophe: The Smoke’s uneasy attempts to ignore the coming environmental apocalypse feel like a distant cousin of Hail to the Thief’s 2+2=5, while Speech Bubbles deals with the after-effects of this approach. There is information overload, and there are ample helpings of paranoia and disgust. You Will Never Work in Television Again rages at a Jeffrey Epstein-ish character: “He’s a fat fucking mist – young bones spat out, girls slitting their wrists.” If you wanted, you could suggest that Skinner’s jazz chops affect the sound a little – The Opposite opens with a twisting breakbeat in which the accents never fall in the way you’d expect; he responds to the convoluted, percussive guitar arpeggios of Thin Thing with a pattern that’s simultaneously complex and deft – but in absolute fairness to Phil Selway, it’s not like Radiohead have struggled through their career with a drummer artlessly clobbering away at the back.
You could argue with some justification that there’s nothing head-spinningly different here, but you would have a far harder time arguing that what is here isn’t exceptionally good. If the tenor is as gloomy as ever, genuinely beautiful moments abound: the point, a minute into Speech Bubbles, when a string section slowly rises out of the electronic fog; the lushly cinematic orchestration that appears midway through Pana-vision. Ironically, it reserves one of its loveliest melodies for Open the Floodgates, a song that appears to excoriate a certain type of Radiohead fan (or indeed rock critic) who thinks the band went desperately off-piste as the 90s turned into the 00s and have never been quite as good since: “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus … we want the good bits, without your bullshit.”
More ironically still, it’s followed by precisely what said fan/critic has been waiting for over the last 20-plus years. Free in the Knowledge is an exquisite acoustic ballad directly in the lineage of Fake Plastic Trees: the kind of thing a less adventurous, more straightforward or rapacious band might have filled OK Computer’s follow-up with. It’s not the only time that A Light for Attracting Attention unexpectedly recalls the bit of Radiohead’s career that Radiohead themselves seldom acknowledge these days. If it’s a huge stretch to suggest that You Will Never Work in Television Again could have appeared on their debut Pablo Honey – it’s too dense and tightly-wound, and features gusts of graveyard-ambience synths and a burst of free-blowing brass – its raging guitars definitely evoke a time when Radiohead seemed like a product of the post-Nevermind age rather than harbingers of a new era.
So there are surprises here, albeit ones linked to the back catalogue of Yorke and Greenwood’s day job. Indeed, were A Light for Attracting Attention actually that day job’s long-awaited follow-up to A Moon Shaped Pool, you wouldn’t be crushed with disappointment, which is far from faint praise. Whatever the future holds for the Smile, their debut album feels like more than an indulgent diversion.