The release of a new Radiohead album is greeted in certain circles as a kind of holy occasion, a time to drop everything else going on in your life and commence Deep Listening.
We have not witnessed such a hallowed event since 2016, when Radiohead dropped A Moon Shaped Pool, and a new album after such a wait sure would be welcome. Sometimes, though, it’s nice to see what the members of a great band can do when working outside such weighty expectations. That’s the story of the Smile, the excellent side band Radiohead singer Thom Yorke and lead guitarist Jonny Greenwood have formed with jazz drummer Tom Skinner. On the band’s 2022 debut, A Light for Attracting Attention, the stakes were low, and the jams were loose.
The Smile are back with Wall of Eyes, a lavishly gorgeous second LP. No one is going to convene a Deep Listening Consortium to unpack its meaning, and that’s part of the appeal. This music drifts, and we drift with it. “I can go anywhere that I want,” Yorke sings against the spacious jazz rock of ambling “Friend of a Friend,” adding, “just gotta turn myself inside out.”
On the album’s opening title track, Greenwood unspools some acoustic lullaby strum and Yorke coos anxiously as his voice pings amid elegiacally dissolving electro-acoustic folderol. And that’s pretty much it for five transfixing minutes. “Teleharmonic” is ambiguous bliss, with Yorke making like a dyspeptic soul boy as the song’s crinkly whir gathers around him until the effect almost feels hymnlike. On “Under Our Pillows,” Greenwood’s guitar contorts and glistens as Yorke’s quavering voice slips in and out of focus, then the music fades unexpectedly into an ambient wash. With its Doppler-effect drum rumble, shadowy piano, archangel strings, and Yorke’s enveloping mumble-blues vocalese, “I Quit” feels relentless and distracted, a brilliant balance of opposites.
The first Smile record rocked out a little more than recent Radiohead. This one is more subdued, but there are a couple of bangers. “Read the Room” is coiled and funky, with Greenwood splaying out coolly fractured notes over Skinner’s tense groove, before the song lifts off into a sublime krautrock-y zone-out.
The album’s intense emotional peak is the eight-minute “Bending Hectic.” Greenwood creates a little galaxy of distended shimmering notes. Yorke sets a scene of driving on a mountainside in Italy, and then “letting go of the wheel.” Skinner tensely pushes the beat, Greenwood’s guitar ripples ominously, and Yorke goes over the edge, narrating a moment of dread that also creepily feels like a moment of freedom. Violent strings swell, and Greenwood’s guitar explodes into some of the heaviest, meanest noise he’s ever conjured, mirroring the cathartic collapse Yorke is evoking. It’s the kind of terrifying grandeur these guys do better than anyone else. In any package it shows up in, we’ll always take it.