The Smile is composed of Radiohead members Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood, along with drummer Tom Skinner. Whether or not there is still a future for Radiohead as we know it, with their last album being released in 2016, it’s great to see Thom and Jonny still finding the passion to create new music, even if it be under a new name. The group released their debut record ‘A Light for Attracting Attention’ just under two years ago to plenty of positive reception and acclaim, but if it weren’t clear that The Smile was something more than just a side-project then, their newest album ‘Wall Of Eyes’ should dispel that.
The first thing that stands out to me is so easily how Thom Yorke’s voice still floats so effortlessly, even at 55 (I honestly thought he was older, sorry Thom). As the years have gone on, Thom’s voice has continued to feel more ghostly and hollow, and this record is a great example of how he’s continued to embrace that style. That ghastly voice echoes of the first track, “Wall Of Eyes”, where the albeit simple acoustic opener does an excellent job introducing us to a the atmosphere of this distressing album.
The following song “Teleharmonic” features more of the electronic tone that much of the remainder of the album will take, heavily featuring the synth, and growing into to something grandiose while still sounding very fragile. It’s Thom’s falsetto that really sells that delicacy, and while much of the album might lack some of the power we’ve heard before from Radiohead, it’s the subtle emotional nuance, mostly introduced from Radiohead’s most recent album ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’, that give this a powerful resonance.
“Read The Room” gives a strong krautrock vibe as The Smile plays with some weird time signatures, as they often do. Thom’s voice gets almost snarky and nasal at moments, and the bassline for this is really exciting. It’s a great shift from the previous two lowkey tracks. “Under Our Pillows” has a similar kraut vibe with and really mind-bending guitar line and a strong vocal performance from Thom. The track takes an even more beautiful turn just before the halfway point, gradually building back up to a great climax, and ending with a heavenly electronic string section.
“Friend Of A Friend” is not one of my favorite cuts off of the album, but is still quite beautiful in a strangely nostalgic way. The song was written about Thom’s time quarantined during the pandemic, critical of the government response over another odd time signature. It’s a nice song within the context of the album but didn’t work for me quite as well as a single. The following track “I Quit” is only one of two tracks that were not previously played live by the band. It has a hypnotizing pulse to it, and though the lyrics are honestly quite cryptic, Thom’s lines of “wherever it goes” towards the end are incredibly emotive and moving.
Here comes the real powerhouse of the album, “Bending Hectic”, surely one of my favorite songs across the Radiohead/Smile discography. Perhaps the longest song from that aforementioned discography at 8 minutes, “Bending Hectic” reminds me something of “Airbag” from ‘OK Computer’ in that it details a life-threatening car crash, something that Thom is quite familiar with, experiencing a life-changing car crash himself back in 1987. Though, the crash described here in “Bending Hectic” is only viewed as a fantasy; a conscious letting go of control to careen over a cliff, where Thom must force himself to regain control and turn the car around the hairpin. This fantasy of letting go of “the wheel” is taken to such an extreme that he almost views crashing off the side of a cliff as an admirable way to go out, quickly and succinctly bringing life to an end. The song starts out with a chilling sound of tuning guitars that transform into a dreamy atmosphere, eventually leading to an epic, tense, and dissonant guitar release towards the end. It’s a stunning piece, exhilarating and cathartic.
The album closes on the slowest and most gentle piano ballad, “You Know Me!”. Thom’s voice soars more delicately than ever before over this quiet piano tune, and his closing lyrics of “don’t think you know me, don’t think I am everything you say…” are perhaps the most clear and poignant of the whole record. Whereas so many lyrics feel more cryptic than ever, perhaps not meant to be read into all that much, this final statement is far more direct and separates Thom as an isolated figure, one that our assumptions of him based off his previous works may not understand.
‘Wall Of Eyes’ is certainly a message that’s difficult to decipher. The incredible melancholic tone that we heard on ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ has continued to evolve itself into some of the longest and most somber songs of Thom Yorke’s career. If we’re simply comparing ‘Wall Of Eyes’ to the other astronomical highs across the Radiohead discovery, this record may not live up to those expectations, though it’s hard to imagine that many albums could. Simply, The Smile and ‘Wall Of Eyes’ works on its own merit. We may not know where the future of Radiohead will lead next or if that chapter may be closed. Heck, there’s no telling if this will be something of a sendoff for The Smile either. Only time will tell on that front. Regardless, I’m glad I get to appreciate this moment.
|Wall of Eyes / 80
|Teleharmonic / 80
|Read the Room / 90
|Under Our Pillows / 90
|Friend of a Friend / 80
|I Quit / 80
|Bending Hectic / 100
|You Know Me! / 80