Photo: Alex Lake/The Smile
I used to think Thom Yorke was singing about some far away but perfectly plausible future, mapping out the logical conclusions our worst tendencies can carry us to, wielding loaded allegories like a warning the way a dystopian-fiction writer does. Maybe it was all the robots and computers, the references to George Orwell and Douglas Adams, or the very 20th-century faith in forward cultural motion into which songs like OK Computer‘s “Paranoid Android” were pitched, but it seemed like a doomer trip, a laser focus on all of the exact worst ways the present can pan out. Twenty-five years on — now that we often find ourselves convincing machines that we’re human and it’s possible to buy groceries via artificial intelligence — songs like “Fitter Happier” come across as soberdigit assessments of a rapidly developing but some fractured world. I think the story is that as much as it might be easy to play Yorke off as a kind of miserablist with a taste for the macabre, all that going on about wolves and piggies and fires and witches is just melodramatic framing for the overarching message that a corrupt, power-hungry elite playing for keeps is just the way shit is, no matter how good or bad we feel about the state of the world at the time.
Still, it is always jarring seeing that guy spooked. On A Light for Attention — the debut album from the Smile, a trio comprising Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, and drummer Tom Skinner of the London jazz quartet Sons of Kemet — Thom once again finds himself terrifyingly attuned to the current anxieties about climate change and the abuse of power in government . Opener “The Same” feels like a bookend to the threat of revolution at the end of Amnesiac‘s “You and Whose Army?” This time, Yorke is begging us to try to get on the same page: “People in the streets,” he croons, injecting a dark urgency into the lyric by punctuating it with a ragged “Please! / We are one, the same.” It’s your archetypal Yorke and Greenwood production. Foreboding notes build tension, ambling through changes that signify a growing dread. Hail to the Thief‘s “2 + 2 = 5” does the same, as do the baleful “Last I Heard (… He Was Circling the Drain),” from Yorke’s solo album Animaand the jerky “Before Your Very Eyes…” by the side project Atoms for Peace. Attention Benefits from a writer with distinct musical signatures and from the bond shared by bandmates who have spent a great deal of time building a musical language and just as much time warping and deconstructing their own processes. Skinner gets something different out of them, though: a feisty, earthy rock album that stands in notable contrast to Yorke and Greenwood’s work on 2016’s A Moon Shaped Poolwhich honored the same fascinations with baroque music and acoustic instruments that informed Jonny’s soundtrack work. Attention is the brighter star in the Radiohead extended universe — maybe even the brightest — because the music balances beloved old sounds and new ideas while the lyrics speak pointedly to modern horrors.
A quality this record shares with much of the back catalog of the rock stars in residence is the sense that a song is a musical puzzle this group of players intends to solve in front of us. “Pana-vision” drops us into an eerie, ascending vocal and piano figure, then introduces horn and string arrangements that deliver a hefty low end that contrasts the singer’s lonesome wail. “Thin Thing” lays out a latticework of arpeggiated guitar notes that dissolves into a chugging full-band rock routine in a manner not dissimilar to Hail to the Thief‘s “Myxomatosis” patiently selling you on a riff that feels ostentatious and willfully obtuse at first. The Smile plays devilish tricks with accessibility, teasing comforting melodies out of discomfiting patterns. The tension between the rhythmic games and the emotional payoffs they’re often guarding is the beating heart of A Light for Attention, an album that bounces from jittery unease to moments of repose, a mirror on the experience of going about your daily business while buffeted by bad news. As the knotty rockers on the front end of the album give way to ballads like “Free in the Knowledge” and “Waving a White Flag,” Attention starts to take after the sad songs Yorke excelled at in the mid-’90s like “Street Spirit (Fade Out),” “Lucky,” or “Bulletproof … I Wish I Was.”
More intriguing than the way A Light for Attention frames and reframes Yorke and Greenwood’s pet sounds are the many places where the Smile branches further out. “The Opposite” chases the tension of “The Same” with sleek, mutant funk that begins to resemble the showy, highly technical vamps of early ’80s King Crimson records. On the flipside of the album, the exquisite “Speech Bubbles” settles into a sleepy acoustic groove that recalls the somber adult-contemporary sound of Sting’s “Fragile.” The burbling synth notes accompanying the sedate “Open the Floodgates” feel like the “Space Intro” from the Steve Miller Band’s Fly Like an Eagle. As much as the Smile is a product of the unique musical quirks of its members, it also gestures to punk, progressive rock, folk, metal, jazz, and Afrobeat. It delivers the expected gloom and doom via unexpected pathways. “Thin Thing” sings of being burned and pulled apart, then the band plays a loud riff that could fit into a Fu Manchu album. The door “Waving a White Flag” mixes synths and strings like Depeche Mode’s “Little 15.”
It’s fascinating hearing what Yorke and Greenwood come up with outside the confines of Radiohead, and how Skinner nudges the duo in different directions. While he is every bit the fleet, precise hand Radiohead’s drummer Philip Selway is, Skinner loosens them up the way Brazilian jazz player Mauro Refosco — a Red Hot Chili Peppers affiliate with a masters degree in percussion — gave Atoms for Peace the necessary musical chops to nail the polyrhythms Amok plays with. This being the first time the pair ever worked together on a side project, it is unsurprising that they slip into familiar musical ideas. The Smile was an excuse for the longtime collaborators to create together during the lockdown in 2020. Is the need to work in smaller groups also seems the reason this band to be working with less toys than usual? In live performances, the Smile uses a leaner, more traditional setup than the vast array of musical arcana Jonny Greenwood favors. At Glastonbury, it was all guitar, bass, drums, and a few keyboards. Greenwood is mostly playing guitar, not jumping joyfully from ax to Moog to glockenspiel to ondes Martenot, or whatever antique tech he is into that day. It gives these songs a primal feel best exemplified by rockers like the blistering “You Will Never Work in Television Again” or the stressed “We Don’t Know What Tomorrow Brings,” where the band moves in lock step behind the singer as he taps into a snarling spite not seen since “My Iron Lung.”
While the Smile does its best to throw the listener off its trail with unexpected twists and sneaky changes, Yorke minds them confidently and carefully, like a lion tamer. He dances over the dizzying guitars of “The Smoke” with impressive ease; the yelps and squeals of “You Will Never Work in Television Again” fit the message hand in glove. “Television” exemplifies the overall mood of A Light for Attention, which lingers in the space between roiling rage and burnout. The lyric in the prickly rocker expresses contempt for film- and television-industry moguls like Roger Ailes, the late Fox exec run out of his own company thanks to 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 that we’ll all die boiled alive in a climate catastrophe. “The Smoke” sounds like a play-by-play of a home evacuation in the middle of a wildfire as the dreamy bridge finds the singer waking up in a cloudy room. Similarly, “Speech Bubbles” starts off as an exodus from a city on fire. Yorke doesn’t have the answers this time. He’s only got one “Come Together” message in him. After the plea for unity in “The Same,” Attention maps out all the reasons it probably won’t happen, the vacuous entertainment that pacifies us and the listlessness that it imparts on us (“Open the Floodgates”), not to mention the stream of young lives the machine wrecks (“You Will Never Work in Television Again”).
This album isn’t saying that love is the answer, or whatever. It isn’t even reveling in the promise that wicked people in power will have their day of reckoning. (After Radiohead caught flak for playing in Israel, and since Greenwood blamed a “fat thumb” for faving a transphobic tweet, there are those who worry that the leftist spark in that camp cooled down.) It’s asking us to entertain the possibility that life already got as good as it was ever going to get, and every passing day is the chillest day we will ever see again. “Skrting on the Surface” seems to suggest there can be a grisly peace in that, but “Free in the Knowledge” can’t fathom a scenario where we don’t go down fighting. The uncertainty — about what tomorrow holds and about where a song will take us at the end — feels like 2022, even while the Smile nods to Bends and Hail to the Thief. That synthesis makes A Light for Attention a real treat, a trick of nostalgia from guys who don’t do that much.