Indie Music

The Smile: Wall of Eyes review | Alexis Petridis’s album of the week

Three songs into the second album by the Smile, Thom Yorke informs us that he’s had it. “It takes away, it takes the fun out,” he keens, to Read the Room’s vinegary guitar riff. “Maybe I can’t be arsed.” Long-term observers of Yorke’s songwriting might also greet this with a shrug. For decades, his lyrics have mapped out an overcast emotional territory bordered by fear, anger, despair and ennui. So it is on Wall of Eyes. There are twitchy songs inhabited by nameless sources of dread, suggestions that something terrible is happening just out of shot (“Don’t let them take me”, “Stop looking over our shoulder”), and a song called I Quit. The subjects are usually oblique (the protagonist of the title track could be an oligarch or tech billionaire; the backstabbing “user” who is “standing in my light” on You Know Me! might be a hanger-on, or a critic, or someone else entirely), but the mood is much as ever. There is one fabulously improbable moment in Bending Hectic, which depicts Yorke cruising through the Italian countryside in “a vintage soft-top from the 60s”, but don’t panic: it’s merely a precursor, a bit of scene-setting before the song is consumed by Ballardian thoughts of automotive suicide. Normal service is thus resumed.

Whatever it is that Yorke can’t be arsed with, it’s clearly not music. Indeed, it’s hard to think of any major rock artists who are evidently more arsed than him and Radiohead’s other members. It’s nearly eight years since their last album, A Moon-Shaped Pool, the longest gap in their career. But the interval has been filled with a torrent of solo projects, film scores, contemporary classical pieces, remixes, activism and two albums by the Smile, which unites Yorke and Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood with Sons of Kemet drummer Tom Skinner.

The Smile’s 2021 debut, A Light for Attracting Attention, caused some observers to wonder whether Radiohead had a future: here were the band’s two most recognisable members with a set of songs that dipped into Radiohead’s catalogue of unreleased material – Open the Floodgates, Skirting on the Surface – and that moreover sounded like Radiohead. It was entirely possible to admire the swing and exploratory tone that betrayed drummer Skinner’s background in jazz and wonder exactly what the Smile were doing that Radiohead could not.

Perhaps the answer is less artistic than psychological. As with the first album, you would be hard-pushed to describe Wall of Eyes as anything other than Radiohead-esque. But for an album so thick with disquiet and gloom, there is a strange sense of ease about much of it. And perhaps that’s the sound of Yorke and Greenwood making music detached from the expectations and sense of import that freights every release by Radiohead. (Even the Trumpton-parodying video for A Moon-Shaped Pool’s single Burn the Witch was read in some quarters as “a pointed critique of nativism”.)

There are lovely, tumbling chord sequences and vaguely Latin rhythms underpinning both the title track and Teleharmonic. Friend of a Friend unexpectedly carries something of the relaxed charm of an early 70s singer-songwriter album – the gorgeous tune is almost McCartney-esque – albeit strafed by edgily discordant horror-movie strings. The structure of I Quit should feel familiar to anyone conversant with Radiohead’s back catalogue – it’s one of those songs that drifts along, muttering to itself as if lost in its own despondency, driven by its bassline – except this time, it’s bisected by a straightforwardly beautiful orchestral arrangement.

It’s music that feels inventive, but naturally so. Only Under Our Pillows, which shifts from tricky guitar riffing to dark ambience to a motorik pulse without ever really landing an emotional punch, seems like it’s trying too hard. For all the electronic effects – the glitching sampled guitar that opens I Quit, the ghostly synth tones that gust around Teleharmonic – the sound of Wall of Eyes is that of a live band playing together – a sense amplified by Skinner’s drumming. It’s is frankly extraordinary on Read the Room: there’s a point, just over two minutes in, when Skinner suddenly disrupts the laid-back breakbeat with a succession of clattering fills so extravagant they seem to teeter on the verge of chaos, as if the track’s rhythm might be lost completely.

It’s also boldly out-there and exploratory as album highlight Bending Hectic begins. The song starts with a folky fingerpicked pattern that might recall that on Harry Nilsson’s Everybody’s Talkin’ were it not for the fact it keeps falling apart. It sounds like someone’s fiddling with the guitar’s tuning pegs as it plays. Then the rhythm becomes a slow-motion shuffle and, for a couple of minutes, the melody soars. Then it stops, replaced by a vast wall of screaming strings – A Day in the Life via the Psycho soundtrack – and the song resolves into a diseased-sounding, distorted guitar-laden grind. It’s imaginative and viscerally thrilling, one of the best things Yorke and Greenwood have put their names to in at least a decade. Like the rest of Wall of Eyes, it really doesn’t feel interstitial, like a placeholder until the definite article reappears. What that portends for Radiohead’s future – if anything – is arguable; the album’s quality is not.

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Wall of Eyes is released on 26 January

This week Alexis listened to

Steven Wilson – Inclination (Ewan Pearson remix)
The remixes from Wilson’s recent album The Harmony Codex have involved everyone from the Manic Street Preachers to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop: here, Ewan Pearson sprinkles sunlit Balearic euphoria.

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