When I heard that Radiohead masterminds Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood were splitting off for a side project, I was a little apprehensive. First of all, I thought perhaps there had been some internal friction leading to the final curtain for Radiohead. Additionally, I was anxious to hear what new musical alchemy they would conjure up in the studio with the assumption that The Smile would mark a significant change in creative direction.
So, what have I learned since then? Well, thankfully, The Smile doesn’t mark the end for Radiohead; they have asserted that they are on a break for individual projects and will likely return to the studio together in the not too distant future. With that anxiety subdued, it was time to address the sound of The Smile.
Our first exposure to the new collaboration between Yorke, Greenwood and Sons Of Kemet drummer Tom Skinner came in the form of ‘You Will Never Work In Television Again’ at the start of January. The single did seem to come with a marked departure from any of Radiohead’s previous sounds, with its raw – almost punk – sound accompanying Yorke’s yelping vocals. The single seemed to have taken the blueprints of ‘Bodysnatchers’ from 2007’s In Rainbows and taken it somewhere a little more rough and ready.
A few weeks later, we were given the second taste of A Light For Attracting Attention with ‘The Smoke’. The single restored faith that I might thoroughly enjoy the album after finding the first track a little out of character. While I enjoy heavier punk-infused music, I feel that Yorke’s voice is better suited to smoother compositions. ‘The Smoke’ is carried by a dub-style bassline and with the gentle accompaniment of Yorke’s vocals throughout that build over the track with the addition of brass textures toward the end – a true highlight of the album.
After this, we were generously offered a further four preview singles in ‘Skirting On The Surface’, ‘Pana-vision’, ‘Free in the Knowledge’ and ‘Thin Thing’. The spread sparked my suspicions that the album might come as an eclectic mix that doesn’t lurch too far from the, admittedly, broad scope of the Radiohead back catalogue.
We now finally have the full 13-track album to feast upon, and it’s undeniably another jaw-dropping work of art, but I can’t help thinking of it as the tenth Radiohead album. This will draw no complaints from me, but there are some who were hoping The Smile would come with a significant stylistic and creative departure from Yorke and Greenwood’s previous work. That said, Skinner’s involvement does bring a new atmosphere to some of the tracks with his unique jazz-inspired rhythmic style that gives some of the more delicate moments of the album some intriguing substance.
As Yorke and Greenwood have done many a time before, they have brought an album that is well balanced, with slower brooding tracks like the acoustic beauty, ‘Free in the Knowledge’ or the piano-driven dreamy excursion, ‘Open the Floodgates’, to the more stimulating and upbeat tracks like ‘A Hairdryer’ and ‘The Opposite’.
While satisfactorily unique, A Light For Attracting Attention fuses strands of DNA from past Radiohead albums. For example, ‘The Opposite’ seems to have been born out of A Moon Shaped Pool with a particular resemblance to ‘Identikit’. Meanwhile, the closing track, ‘Skirting On The Surface’, wouldn’t seem out of place as a long lost In Rainbows B-side.
The sporadic use of brass and orchestral string sections throughout helps to add a powerful element of atmosphere and sentimentality toward the closing seconds of some of the more sincere tracks. Such inclusions can often be overcooked modern music, but in A Light For Attracting Attention they are neither over nor underemployed. Hats off to Nigel Godrich for another production masterclass.
On the whole, the album comes as an exceedingly satisfying listen and is, for me, one of the finest albums of the year so far. The album covers a broad range of emotions and musical styles in a seemingly effortless blend of jazz, dub, classical, electro and alt-rock. Does it cover much new ground? Not really, but did it need to? The Smile have condensed and consolidated most of the best aspects of Yorke and Greenwood’s past 30 years with Radiohead into an eclectic yet monolithic project. I’m excited to see what move they make next.