Few things garner the kind of hype that a new Radiohead album does. Legions of hipsters lick their chops and speculate about what it might sound like. The die-hards take to message boards speculating what obscure live track or outtake might finally make its way onto the tracklist (such as “True Love Waits,” which appeared on A Moon Shaped Pool over two decades after Thom started playing it as an encore on his acoustic guitar).
But I’m not sure that crowd (which absolutely, unapologetically includes me) has ever been quite as frothed up about anything as much as The Smile, which finds Thom Yorke and Johnny Greenwood reuniting with longtime Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich for a new collaboration. Yorke and Greenwood have long been treated like the primarily creative duo behind Radiohead in the first place, so what would really differentiate The Smile from their main project?
Turns out, not much—and that’s exactly what we wanted.
The only hard line I can identify between The Smile and Radiohead is the lineup: instead of Collin, Phil, and Ed, there’s just drummer Tom Skinner of avant-jazz group Sons of Kemmet. This brings some changes to the writing process—Greenwood seems to play far more guitar here, instead of jumping between various obtuse keyboards and percussive instruments like in the last few Radiohead albums. Most live videos have shown Thom playing bass. However, there are plenty of pianos and analog synths filling in the extra space on the tape, as well as strings and woodwinds.
After the single “You Will Never Work In Television,” there was a lot of early speculation that The Smile might find Yorke and Greenwood returning to the more rock-oriented sound of albums like The Bends and Pablo Honey. In fact, that track is a clear outlier here—I’d almost call it a sore thumb, but that would imply that its raucous scraping is unwelcome. But as for me, I’m grateful that the record leans far more in the direction of rubbery guitar arpeggios, skittering drum rhythms, and plenty of trademark Radiohead atmosphere.
As I listen, I can’t help but think about Johnny Greenwood’s explanation of the project’s origin. Essentially, he was cooped up during the pandemic and just desperately wanted to make music with his friend Thom. These thirteen songs carry that energy perfectly. Their thirty-year-plus partnership feels maybe a bit refreshed, free of the pressure that a writing session for the legendary Radiohead might carry. There’s a simplicity of purpose here that transcends even the lushest arrangements on the disc, an effortlessness that sidesteps the grandiosity of their main project and manages to be just about as satisfying. They might be Thom and Johnny from Radiohead™, but as The Smile, they’re just two longtime friends who are still having a blast making music with each other. And as long as that relationship is turning out music as rich and rewarding as this, we should all tune in.
A Light For Attracting Attention is out now digitally with physical editions released June 17th through XL Recordings.