The Smile – Wall of Eyes

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The Smile Wall of Eyes review

So strong is Radiohead’s gravitational pull that plenty of fans probably expected the 2022 debut of spinoff band The Smile to fit right into the mother band’s sad-panda sound. Instead, A Light for Attracting Attention was funky and fun in a way that mimicked and even transcended existing reputation. It’s not clear whether it’s a natural progression of Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood’s work with drummer Tom Skinner and the London Contemporary Orchestra, or whether there’s a big shift between the production of Nigel Godrich there and Sam Petts-Davies here, but The Smile’s second album Wall of Eyes holds wilder dares and experiments.

A Light for Attracting Attention highlighted Krautrock influences in both The Smile and especially later Radiohead by extension. Wall of Eyes is a demonstrably slower and quieter album overall, but it also feels like there are more extremes of soft and loud, more playful and paranoid manipulation of notes, and more weeping ambience and symphonics. The title track feels like Richie Havens’ chugging folk-pop gone fascinatingly wrong, for example, while “I Quit” would be a tender ballad except for every instrument stuttering like there’s a finger fast-forwarding a CD. Multiple songs simply go haywire at the end in grand 1970s fashion.

The eight tracks on Wall of Eyes include songs written and performed on The Smile’s first tour, as well as fragments and scraps pulled from Radiohead lore and Thom Yorke’s solo work. We can make out specific references to transit problems and accidents as well as to Italy, the latter clearly inspired by Yorke’s new life with Dajana Roncione, whom he married during the COVID pandemic. Outside of his brief lockdown remembrance “Friend of a Friend,” the minimal, obtuse lyrics here make only the most tenuous connections to tangible things or concepts. We have to hope we’re getting it right when we associate songs like “Bending Hectic” with losing control, where for the want of a comma—“No way and no how/I’m letting go of the wheel”—Thom Yorke could be singing about changing his life or perhaps a fate far darker.

The infusion of jazz, classical, and experimental music into largely somber pop compositions like “You Know Me” reminds me of the late-period work of important expatriate Britons in New York City: John Lennon’s home-cooked politicking and balladry as December 1980 approached, and David Bowie as he began to apply his own death mask with The Next Day. Wall of Eyes isn’t really an artistic swerve away from A Light for Attracting Attention but a true 180 from it. What is effectively the Yorke-Greenwood Jazz Trio now hews closer to one of the most beloved rock acts of the last 40 years. They pile on the insularity for a pretty, yet considerably more challenging, entry in the extended Radiohead catalog.

Label: XL

Year: 2024

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