Photo: Alex Lake/The Smile
I used to think that Thom Yorke was singing about the distant but perfectly plausible future, tracing the logical conclusions our worst tendencies can lead us to, brandishing charged allegories as a warning like a writer of dystopian fiction does. Maybe it was all the robots and computers, the references to George Orwell and Douglas Adams, or the very 20th century faith in the forward cultural movement in which songs like Ok Computer“Paranoid Android” launched, but it felt like a disastrous journey, a laser-like focus on all the exact worst ways the present can unfold. Twenty-five years later — now that we often find ourselves convincing machines that we’re human and that it’s possible to buy groceries via artificial intelligence — songs like “Fitter Happier” pop up like sober assessments of a rapidly digitizing but increasingly fractured world. I think the story is that while it might be easy to play Yorke as some kind of wretch with a taste for the macabre, everything about wolves and pigs and fires and witches doesn’t is just a melodramatic framing for the overarching message that a corrupt, power-hungry elite playing for good, that’s how it is, no matter how good or bad we think of the state of the world at the time .
Yet it’s still shocking to see that the guy was scared. On A light to attract attention — the debut album by The Smile, a trio of Yorke, Jonny Greenwood and drummer Tom Skinner of London jazz quartet Sons of Kemet — Thom once again finds himself terribly sensitive to current concerns about climate change and abuse power in government. Opener “The Same” looks like a bookend to the threat of a revolution at the end of amnesic‘s “You and what army?” This time, Yorke begs us to try to get on the same page: “People in the street,” he croons, injecting a dark urgency into the lyrics by punctuating them with an “S’ please ! / We are one, the same. It’s your archetypal Yorke and Greenwood production. The ominous notes create tension, going through shifts that signify growing dread. Hello thief“2 + 2 = 5” does the same thing, as does the ominous “Last I Heard (…He Was Circling the Drain)”, from Yorke’s solo album Animaand the choppy “Before Your Very Eyes…” from the Atoms for Peace side project. Attention benefits from a writer with distinct musical signatures and the bond shared by bandmates who have spent a great deal of time constructing a musical language and just as much time warping and deconstructing their own processes. However, Skinner pulls something different out of it: a fiery, earthy rock album that stands in stark contrast to Yorke and Greenwood’s work on the 2016 albums. A moon-shaped swimming poolwhich honored the same fascinations with baroque music and acoustic instruments that inspired Jonny’s soundtrack work. Attention is the brightest star in the Radiohead Extended Universe – maybe even the brightest – because the music balances beloved old sounds and new ideas while the lyrics ostensibly speak to modern horrors.
One quality this record shares with much of the rock star-in-residence catalog is the sense that a song is a musical puzzle that this group of musicians are set to solve in front of us. “Pana-vision” immerses us in a disturbing and rising vocal and piano figure, then introduces arrangements of horn and strings which deliver a low bass which contrasts with the solitary moan of the singer. “Thin Thing” features a latticework of arpeggiated guitar notes that dissolve into a breathy rock routine in a way that’s no different from Hello thief“Myxomatosis” patiently sells you a riff that seems ostentatious and deliberately obtuse at first glance. The Smile plays devilish tricks with accessibility, teasing heartwarming melodies from unnerving patterns. The tension between rhythm games and the emotional payoffs they often hold is the beating heart of A light to attract attention, an album that moves from nervous discomfort to moments of rest, a mirror on the experience of going about your daily business while being shaken by bad news. As the gnarly rockers of the album’s start give way to ballads like “Free in the Knowledge” and “Waving a White Flag”, Attention begins to take after the sad songs that Yorke excelled at in the mid-90s like “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”, “Lucky” or “Bulletproof…I Wish I Was”.
More intriguing than the path A light to attract attention frame and reframe Yorke and Greenwood’s pet sounds are the many places where the smile branches further. “The Opposite” chases away the tension of “The Same” with sleek, mutant funk that begins to sound like the flashy, highly technical vampires of early ’80s King Crimson records. On the album’s flip side, the exquisite ” Speech Bubbles” settles into a sleepy acoustic groove reminiscent of the brooding adult-contemporary sound of Sting’s “Fragile.” The gurgling synth notes accompanying the quiet “Open the Floodgates” sound like Steve Miller Band’s “Space Intro” Fly like an eagle. As much as the Smile is the product of its members’ unique musical whims, it nods to punk, progressive rock, folk, metal, jazz, and afrobeat. It delivers expected gloom and doom in unexpected ways. “Thin Thing” sings about being burned and separated, then the band plays a strong riff that could fit in a Fu Manchu album. The bleak “Waving a White Flag” mixes synths and strings like Depeche Mode’s “Little 15”.
It’s fascinating to hear what Yorke and Greenwood come up with outside the confines of Radiohead, and how Skinner pushes the duo in different directions. While he’s quite the fleet, Radiohead drummer Philip Selway is Skinner’s precise hand, but Skinner relaxes them the way Brazilian jazzman Mauro Refosco – a Red Hot Chili Peppers affiliate with a master’s in percussion – gave Atoms for Peace the musical chops needed to nail the polyrhythms Amok play with. It’s the duo’s first time working together on a side project, so it’s no surprise they’ve slipped into some familiar musical ideas. The Smile was an excuse for longtime collaborators to create together during lockdown in 2020. Is the need to work in small groups also the reason this group seems to be working with fewer toys than usual? In live performances, the Smile uses a lighter, more traditional setup than the wide range of musical arcana that Jonny Greenwood favors. At Glastonbury it was all guitar, bass, drums and some keyboards. Greenwood mainly plays guitar, not happily jumping from ax to Moog to glockenspiel to Martenot waves, or whatever ancient tech he’s into that day.. This gives these songs a primal feel best exemplified by rockers like the raunchy “You Will Never Work in Television Again” or the stressed-out “We Don’t Know What Tomorrow Brings,” where the band moves in step behind the singer as that he hits. in a growling spite not seen since “My Iron Lung”.
While the Smile does its best to lead the listener astray with unexpected twists and sneaky changes, Yorke watches over them confidently and attentively, like a lion tamer. He dances on the vertiginous guitars of “The Smoke” with an impressive ease; the yelps and shouts of “You’ll never work on TV again” fit the message perfectly. “Television” illustrates the general atmosphere of A light to attract attention, which lingers in the space between seething rage and burnout. The prickly rocker’s lyrics express contempt for film and TV industry moguls like Roger Ailes, the late Fox executive who left his own company over a mountain of sexual assault allegations, and Silvio Berlusconi , the former Italian prime minister who was accused of sex with underage girls in the 2010s. Elsewhere, the album seems certain we’ll all be boiled alive in a climate catastrophe. “The Smoke” feels like a play-by-play of a house evacuation in the middle of a forest fire as the dream bridge finds the singer waking up in a cloudy room. Likewise, “Speech Bubbles” begins as an exodus from a burning city. Yorke doesn’t have the answers this time. It only has one “Come Together” message in it. After the plea for unity in “The Same”, Attention maps out all the reasons why it probably won’t happen, the meaningless entertainment that pacifies us and the apathy it gives us (“Open the Floodgates”), not to mention the flood of young lives the machine destroys ( “You Will Never Work on Television Again”).
This album doesn’t say love is the answer, or anything. That’s not even reveling in the promise that the wicked in power will have their day of reckoning. (After Radiohead was criticized for playing in Israel, and since Greenwood blamed a “big thumb” for preferring a transphobic tweet, there are those who fear that the left spark in this camp has cooled.) It asks us to consider the possibility that life is already as good as it would have been ever been, and each passing day is the coldest day we will ever see again. “Skrting on the Surface” seems to suggest there may be a grisly peace in there, but “Free in the Knowledge” can’t imagine a scenario where we won’t fight. The uncertainty – about what tomorrow holds and where a song will take us in the end – feels like 2022, even as the smile nods to Elbows and Hello thief. This synthesis makes A light to attract attention a real treat, a touch of nostalgia for guys who don’t do that much.