It may be imprudent to speculate on the future of Radiohead, a highly influential band. However, faced with their confident, smooth, and melodic second album since 2022’s A Light for Attracting Attention, The Smile is undeniably where Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood are currently focusing their best efforts – this stripped-down, nimble version of Yorke and Greenwood’s signature sound, aided by Sons of Kemet’s drummer Tom Skinner.
Wall of Eyes takes the funky and angry energy of A Light… and adds elements of psychedelia, 70s German motorik, and the strings of the London Contemporary Orchestra. Despite being a more thoughtful and gradual album, it still meets the high standards set by Smile. The band’s busy touring schedule has allowed this new Smile album to develop naturally from its predecessor. Several songs intended for Wall of Eyes have already been performed live and incorporated into set lists over the past few years. One of these songs is Bending Hectic, a tense and thrilling car accident scene which was released as a standalone track a year ago. (A live album, recorded at the Montreux jazz festival, was also released in December 2022, followed by a limited-edition vinyl EP in 2023 titled Europe: Live Recordings.)
The standout song “Friend of a Friend” originated as a live performance in 2022 under the name “People on Balconies”. The lyrics tell the story of neighbors gathering outside in Italy, a common occurrence during the lockdowns of Covid-19 (Yorke’s partner, Dajana Roncione, is Italian). The events take a turn for the worse (“we take a tumble”) and become suspicious (“All of that money/ Where did it go?”). With a piano and strings that become increasingly alarmed, “Friend of a Friend” showcases the Smile – which is meant to be a jazz-infused detour from Radiohead – unexpectedly taking a more traditional, Beatles-esque direction.
Some other songs, like Under Our Pillows – featuring a prominent guitar part from Greenwood – have been shared through videos from fans on YouTube. The melancholic, nostalgic Teleharmonic, with added flute, has also been heard before on Peaky Blinders (under a slightly different name). Nowadays, artists use various methods to release their work, whether it’s dropping new songs all at once or slowly unveiling them on social media. The fact that there are popular live songs that have not been officially recorded yet gives the impression that Smile is not just a side project but a serious endeavor, with the band continuously developing and refining their music in real time.
There have been numerous projects spawned from Radiohead in the past – Atoms for Peace, solo albums by Yorke, typically electronic, Greenwood’s compositions for Paul Thomas Anderson movies, and a solo outing by Ed O’Brien. However, The Smile now seems to be a vibrant and active entity, just as dynamic and tangible as Yorke and Greenwood’s main work. The duo naturally maintains a sense of connection between their projects; it was once speculated that “Wall of Ice” would be a potential title for a Radiohead EP. Similar to Damon Albarn’s various endeavors, their fundamental themes and signature melodies often remain consistent across different formations.
It’s worth pointing up the differences that remain, of course. A crucial one is Skinner, who has also drummed for Floating Points and Kano. He is a decade younger than O’Brien and Yorke, and his role, in theory, has been to add even more complex rhythms to Yorke and Greenwood’s often knotty cat’s cradles of music. But he is also a skilled multi-instrumentalist with an entirely fresh set of inputs, whose keyboard credits confirm an increasingly expanded brief.
The second option has a different atmosphere. In the song “Smile”, it seems as though Yorke and Greenwood are free to evade the pressures, responsibilities, and difficulties that inevitably arise when starting up the main project. It’s easy to understand why: with three musicians, occasionally joined by saxophonist Robert Stillman, they can maneuver more gracefully and produce contemporary classical/funk fusion jams to their satisfaction.
Yorke may be expressing frustration on Read the Room, a fantastic song with a three-part structure that transitions into a faster-paced section. However, Radiohead fans who are prone to anxiety may interpret the lyrics in a variety of ways. Yorke sings about being overwhelmed and possibly not having the motivation to do something, using phrases like “when the time is right” and “when the end has come.”
The one thing that Wall of Eyes is missing is the element of surprise. As a sophomore album, most of it can be found online and features two unique additions. The final track, “You Know Me!”, seems to be a sweet romantic tune, but with a twist as Yorke’s falsetto questions those who believe they understand him, possibly including music critics.
The subtle, unfurling I Quit, meanwhile, marries guitar, piano and percussion to create an arpeggiating Doppler effect strafed by electronics. “This is my stop, this is the end of the trip,” sings Yorke. In the same breath he’s ruminating on “conscience” and “brotherhood” and “a new path out of the madness, to wherever it goes”. That path may well be shaped like a smile.