Gestating for at least 15 years—between material from 2006 soundchecks and formal live introductions throughout 2021—A Light for Attracting Attention is more than just a release from another Radiohead side project. This is The Smile: Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood manipulating voice, keyboards, and guitars under longtime Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich’s hand and arrangements, and over the surprisingly unassuming drums of Sons of Kemet’s Tom Skinner. It’s almost disconcerting just how much this still sounds like the whole band even though there’s less of it. A Light for Attracting Attention is also as clear and “pop” and even fun a release as Radiohead or its splinter factions have assembled in a long time.
The Smile take inspiration not just from the political and social upheaval of a COVID-poisoned world but from 20th-century British poet Ted Hughes. From the band’s name down into its writing, they try to recognize and call out the kind of modern façades once described in Hughes’ work and found in the accounts of his deeply problematic marriage to American writer Sylvia Plath. You can imagine Yorke’s central demand in “Open the Floodgates”—“We want the good bits/Without your bullshit/And no heartaches”—working both as advice taped to a studio wall and as the theme unconsciously spiraling out from lyric notebooks. You can also hear them acknowledge when such goals are missed, when the traditionally sad Radiohead Sound pops up in songs like “Pana-Vision” or when they address big issues like refugees in “Speech Bubbles.”
The band veterans’ cascading electronic effects and synthesizers seem to suggest pre-Krautrock kosmische musik here more than ever. Combined with Yorke’s call-and-response with himself and Skinner’s supple funk rhythms on tracks like “The Opposite,” and The Smile might be Parliament on molly. Across A Light for Attracting Attention there’s a sonic clarity, and sustained senses of momentum and excitement, that felt long absent from the Radiohead firmament. I mean, I did say this album was fun, right? Taking down the Weinsteins, Epsteins, Trumps, and Johnsons of the world? Fun. Passing for later Nine Inch Nails on “We Don’t Know What Tomorrow Brings?” Fun! The loping trip-hop/acid-jazz of “The Smoke” that echoes the days of DJ Shadow and UNKLE? Highlight-of-the-album fun.
“Open the Floodgates” gave us the strategy of the storytelling, but it’s “Free in the Knowledge” that reinforces the actual story being told: “A face using fear to try to keep control/But we get together, well then, who knows?” The Smile got together to hold up relentless honesty as the antidote for fear. A Light for Attracting Attention wants to hone the results so they shine like a lighthouse for the listing ship, but acknowledges they may amount to little more than flame for the curious moth.
Adam Blyweiss is associate editor of Treble. A graphic designer and design teacher by trade, Adam has written about music since his 1990s college days and been published at MXDWN and e|i magazine. Based in Philadelphia, Adam has also DJ’d for terrestrial and streaming radio from WXPN and WKDU.