Pop Culture

Album Review: The Smile, ‘A Light for Attracting Attention’

If you’re a Radiohead fan, you don’t need to be persuaded to listen to A Light for Attracting Attention. Though the Radiohead extended universe has only been expanding since the release of A Moon Shaped Pool six years ago, the debut album from the Smile marks the first time Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood have worked together on a full record outside of their main band. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the response to the new LP isn’t that everyone seems to agree that it’s the best album by a Radiohead side project, but the fact that it sounds the most like Radiohead. Yorke and Greenwood have been carving their own unique lanes with solo projects that yield increasingly resonant and innovative results – Yorke’s last solo LP, ANIMA, is his best to date, while Greenwood’s profile as a progressive film score composer has only risen in recent years – and it’s becoming easier to imagine a world where their future releases, however collaborative, carry almost as much weight as a Radiohead album once did. If one of the implications of A Light for Attracting Attention is that we have to contend with the possibility that there never might be another Radiohead album, they’ll have to be seen as more of a significant event than a side project.

Since making their debut appearance at the 2021 Glastonbury livestream, there was something different about the Smile, but it was precisely because it felt like an offshoot rather than a solo endeavor with a group of esteemed collaborators. It’s pretty much impossible to talk at length about the Smile without turning the discussion to Radiohead – though, if you’re a Radiohead superfan, you’d probably have no issue writing thousands of words unpacking the cultural prescience of Yorke’s lyrics, Greenwood’s intricate performances, the spaciousness of longtime collaborator Nigel Godrich’s production, or the new dynamism brought forth by the group’s third member, Tom Skinner, best known for his work with the London jazz quartet Sons of Kemet – all as if it has no connection with anything that came before it. But if we’re being honest, a huge part of what the trio is offering here comes down to the thrill of familiarity, without the same burden of expectation. It’s what makes so much of A Light for Attracting Attention almost fun, despite the characteristically miserablist bent of its lyrical content.

Yet it’s also unfair to describe the album as a lifeless attempt to recreate a specific era or aesthetic associated with Radiohead – if anything, it’s about injecting those sounds with a new sense of vitality and fluidity, about seeing what happens when you let the connections emerge naturally. Certainly, there is a thread from A Moon Shaped Pool to this album: you can hear it in the tendency to imbue the songs with an orchestral elegance, as in the hypnotic ‘Speech Bubbles’, or in the way ‘Open the Floodgates’ seems to follow on from ‘Daydreaming’, casting the same glow even as it revolves around a different subject. But it also serves as a bridge between records: ‘Waving a White Flag’ blends the ornate instrumentation favoured on A Moon Shaped Pool with the sinister arpeggios of ‘A Wolf at the Door’ from Hail to the Thief, the Radiohead album that has the most in common with A Light for Attracting Attention. Then there’s also ‘Pana-vision’, which recalls Amnesiac’s ‘Pyramid Song’, while the striking ballad ‘Free in the Knowledge’ seems to go back even further, like something from The Bends that’s been carefully preserved for the present moment, in the vein of ‘True Love Waits’.

Beyond their flawless execution, there’s something fascinating about how the record freely explores these stylistic fusions where previous efforts might have sought to break new ground. This makes a song like ‘A Hairdryer’ harder to trace back to any particular album; there’s a bit of The King of Limbs, a bit of Yorke’s The Eraser, and maybe something distinctly the Smile about it. If you’re not a Radiohead fan, you’d have to figure out if you like any of these albums before listening to A Light for Attracting Attention; I can’t think of a way it towers any one of them, except maybe Pablo Honey – and even then, that album achieves the kind of immediate impact this one continuously, and probably deliberately, eludes. As much as I appreciate the Smile’s insistence on teasing out but denying the simple pleasure of a memorable hook, I can’t help but wish all the uneasy tension found some sort of release.

Yet this is a great debut because it reaches for more than the kind of beautiful complexity its members normally excel at; the songs are as knotty and layered as you’d expect, but they also sound refreshingly looser and spikier than they would in the context of Radiohead. This is especially true of the more rock-oriented cuts – you could compare ‘You Will Never Work in Television Again’ to something off Hail to the Thief or even Pablo Honey, but it’s the perfect debut single because Radiohead have never made post-punk sound quite this visceral, and you can hear Skinner’s influence driving the track. ‘The Smoke’ is similarly surprising, riding a mesmerising groove but twisting itself into something funkier than anything in the band’s discography.

Perhaps this is the true and simple appeal of A Light for Attracting Attention: listening to talented musicians discover new territory in what has long been understood as theirs. It begins without any drums or additional instrumentation, just Yorke and Greenwood exchanging ideas, eliciting dread as only they could. Instantly evoking ‘Everything In Its Right Place’, ‘The Same’ builds a dystopian atmosphere any Radiohead fan will recognize, but Yorke in particular seems more comfortable lingering in that uncertain space, that familiar numbness: “When we realize that we are broke and nothing mends/ We can drop under the surface,” he sings on the final track. Yet by observing the present and looking back on the past, the Smile keep searching for a path forward – or, at least, eerily anticipating it.

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