Music

The Smile just made the best Radiohead album Radiohead never made

Wall of Eyes is basically fear and loathing in odd time signatures

Radiohead spin-off group The Smile

The Smile (l-r): Tom Skinner, Jonny Greenwood, Thom Yorke. Image: Frank Lebon

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. 

It’s been eight years since we last got brand-new music from Radiohead, and six since they last played live. In the meantime, the group’s five members have pursued all kinds of other musical endeavours – be it new solo albums by Yorke, guitarist Ed O’Brien and drummer Phil Selway, various film soundtracks by Greenwood, or his brother bassist Colin Greenwood playing live with Nick Cave.

There’s been no suggestion that the band is coming unstuck (drummer Phil Selway told The Big Issue unequivocally last year: “We’re still a band”). More likely they’re all simply letting off creative steam, in order that Radiohead can live on.  

Being in a band of Radiohead’s enormous stature comes with its own unique burdens and complex internal logic – many egos to balance, many mouths to feed. Weight of critical and commercial expectation is massive, and the attentions of obsessive fans hawk-like (case in point: the name Wall of Eyes has history in Radiohead lore – an EP of that name was vaguely rumoured back in the late 00s – leading to speculation that this album may be some sort of Radiohead comeback in disguise). 

The Smile feels like a downscaled way of Yorke and Greenwood doing what comes naturally – call it fear and loathing in odd time signatures – without the same baggage and tortured process as when they do Radiohead. The band began as a way of Greenwood finding an outlet for loads of unused guitar riffs; there’s a feeling on Wall of Eyes of them continuing to dig through a big sandbox of loose ideas and just let fly. 

The album’s best song, Under Our Pillows, starts out with one of those quintessential intricately picked twangy Greenwood guitar riffs, played with a curiously muffled texture as if he’s wearing oven gloves. Half-way through it suddenly goes all motorik space rock before finally evaporating, as if the whole thing’s crashed into the sun. Beatles-y piano song Friend of a Friend is a slice of subdued majesty such as Radiohead used to do so disarmingly back when (think Motion Picture Soundtrack or Pyramid Song), but have for whatever reason allowed themselves to do less as years have gone by.

Sung in a falsetto over a featherlight melody and orchestral drones, You Know Me! alludes to more non-specific nastiness lurking somewhere in the shadows (“when my back is turned / the point of a blade”), and ends the album as if on a dramatic ellipsis. To be continued? 

Wall of Eyes can’t hold a candle to the best records Radiohead have made – few records can. But it may be the best Radiohead record Radiohead have never made.  

The Smile's Wall of Eyes album cover

Wall of Eyes is out now on XL Records; The Smile tour the UK in March, for dates see thesmiletheband.com 

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