At face value you could be forgiven for assuming cheerfully titled three-piece The Smile – a side-project by the lead singer and lead guitarist from renowned art-rock miserabilists Radiohead – to be a parting with the past. Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood’s upbeat antidote to 30 years of songs steeped in darkness, dread, paranoia and self-loathing. The frown, turned upside down.
But you’d be wrong. The opening track to The Smile’s frankly very Radiohead-esque second album of the same name, Wall of Eyes, slides through a claustrophobic fog of nervously circling guitar chords, far-off rumbling drums and filmic slithering strings. Yorke sounds haunted as if by some unseen, unknown evil. “I try, but it don’t go away” he mumbles in the refrain.
Teleharmonic starts with the blunt pronouncement: “Will I make the morning? I don’t know.” Episodic eight-minute nightmare sequence Bending Hectic revisits a favourite subject of Yorke’s – car crashes – replete with a plummeting orchestral bit halfway through that could perfectly soundtrack someone driving off a cliff.
The apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree, and the smile is a wry one. “[It’s] not the smile as in ‘ahh’,” remarked Yorke regarding the band’s name during their livestreamed debut concert performance back in 2021, “more the smile as in the guy who lies to you every day”. Forgive us for ever imagining it could have been anything else, Thom.
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But get beneath the bonnet of this project – a trio formed as a way of keeping busy during the Covid-19 lockdowns of 2020, also featuring Sons of Kemet drummer Tom Skinner – and there’s a sense of Radiohead’s two main creative protagonists having fun together like the motherband may scarcely permit them to these days. Yes, you read that correctly: fun.