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The Smile may be Radiohead’s new avatar

The Smile, a band formed by Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood, along with drummer Tom Skinner, is Radiohead's most prominent side project

The Smile performing at Magazine London on 30 January 2022. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The Smile performing at Magazine London on 30 January 2022. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The movies of American film director Paul Thomas Anderson (often referred to by his initials PTA) can sometimes be divisive. Some audiences love them; others not so much. I have friends who loved his There Will Be Blood (2007), which depicts the ruthless rise of an oil tycoon who commits acts of violence and betrayal and ends with a shocking scene of murder, but were left cold when they watched Phantom Thread (2017), a Gothic romance involving a 1950s London fashion designer and a waitress who becomes his lover and muse. PTA’s movies can be long, with slow-moving narratives; and sometimes, as in his delightful coming of age film, Licorice Pizza (2021), be seemingly incomplete. That’s what makes them polarising.

PTA’s most recent film is a music video for The Smile, a band formed by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood, along with drummer Tom Skinner. I will be really surprised if it leaves any fans of Yorke, Radiohead or The Smile disappointed. PTA, who has collaborated with Radiohead’s members in the past and also directed videos for the band, features Yorke walking through London, encountering surreal imagery such as a wall of eyeballs, a pub full of his clones, and a giant hand. It is a visual representation of The Smile’s new single, Wall Of Eyes, the title song for a new album expected early next year.

The lyrics of Wall Of Eyes explore themes of paranoia, identity and isolation, not unfamiliar ones for followers of Radiohead. The video, shot mostly in black and white, goes well with the song’s experimental sound. It is also a sneak preview or trailer for the forthcoming album, which will be the band’s second studio full-length after last year’s A Light For Attracting Attention.

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That debut album was praised for its innovative approach and its potential for influencing subsequent generations of musicians but then that could also be an apt description of Radiohead. Critically acclaimed since the beginning of their career in the mid-1980s, Radiohead are known for their experimental and innovative style. Yorke, 55, has a brooding tenor capable of a distinctive falsetto, which characterises many of the band’s songs; and Greenwood, 52, is a guitarist and keyboardist, who pushes the boundaries of music adventurously.

Radiohead’s nine albums (the most recent one, A Moon Shaped Pool came out in 2016) span have seen them changing their style often. For instance, The Bends (1995) was the closest they came to traditional rock; on Kid A (2000), they moved away from guitar rock to explore electronic music; and on OK Computer (1997), they created a concept album that explored the then emerging digital age and the alienation and disillusionment that came with it.

During their career, the band’s members have also spawned side projects. Greenwood scored many film soundtracks (including for PTA’s There Will Be Blood and Phantom Thread) and released several solo albums, and frontman Yorke has released his own solo albums, including The Eraser and Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes.

The Smile is their most prominent side project. It could also be the new avatar of Radiohead. The music of Radiohead, which was formed in Oxfordshire, England, in 1985, can be described as experimental, complex and textured, with influences from electronic, classical, jazz and krautrock genres. It is often melancholic and sad, reflecting themes of modern alienation, social and global issues, and personal angst. Listen, for instance, to some of their most famed songs, Creep, No Surprises, Karma Police or Paranoid Android.

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The Smile’s music is different. The name of the band itself seems to be a sort of sardonic wink to Radiohead’s oeuvre. And their music also has more influences of post-punk, progressive rock, Afrobeat and neo-electronic music. Their lyrics are more cryptic, playful, even optimistic. A Light For Attracting Attention, The Smile’s debut album, was received with acclaim by the critics. It also got nominated for Record of the Year at the Libera Awards, which celebrate the independent music community.

Though Radiohead have recently reissued some albums—in 2021, they released Kid A Mnesia, compiling the albums Kid A and Amnesiac—nothing new has been put out since 2016. But their second album will be out in January 2024. Moreover, the band has announced dates for a UK and European tour in early 2024 after the release of the second album. Those gigs will follow this year’s summer tour of the US, during which The Smile played at several venues there. This year, they also released a live album, a recording of their set at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 2022. And, in late 2022, they also played a Tiny Desk Concert at the NPR office in Washington, DC; its YouTube video is a must-watch to see the spontaneous versatility of the band, particularly Yorke and Greenwood.

Back to PTA’s video of the new song from the band. The black and white photography, interspersed with blink-and-you will-miss-it splashes of colour and song’s use of strings from the London Contemporary Orchestra made the track an enticing trailer for the album to come. The Smile could well be Radiohead morphing into a new version of itself.

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First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.Narayan posts @sanjoynarayan.

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