Fifty-nine seconds into “The Same,” the first track from The Smile’s debut release A Light for Attracting Attention, the unmistakable voice of Thom Yorke begins singing about how “we are all the same” atop a sci-fi pulse of piano, acoustic guitar, and analog synthesizers. There’s no easy release from the tension of the song’s slowly creeping dread, and it soon begs an important question: how is an album with Radiohead’s singer, lead guitarist, and producer actually not, well, a Radiohead album?
The answer lies somewhere in between Jonny Greenwood’s simple desire to work on something — anything — with Yorke during the lockdown era of the COVID-19 pandemic and a larger philosophical debate about the evolution of Radiohead’s music in the past 15 years. Both are reflected throughout the superlative A Light for Attracting Attention, which was produced by longtime Radiohead collaborator Nigel Godrich and is arguably the most interesting music they’ve all made together since 2007’s In Rainbows.
That’s because the 13 songs here cherry-pick from the most satisfying aspects of Radiohead’s discography without sounding like a rehash. If anything, they prove Yorke and Greenwood are most effective without all the proverbial bells and whistles of the last two Radiohead albums, which, while beautiful, often tilt toward the sedate. Indeed, it really only requires Yorke and Greenwood’s instantly recognizable vocal and guitar interplay, backed here by the simpatico, cliche-free time-keeping of Sons of Kemet drummer Tom Skinner, to conjure the deliciously biting, angsty sound Radiohead has increasingly relegated to the margins of its recorded output.
So if you’ve missed hearing Greenwood skronk it up like he did on songs such as Radiohead’s “The National Anthem” or wondered if he could render inhuman-sounding arpeggios out of his six-string a la Don Caballero/Battles guitarist Ian Williams, “The Opposite” and “Thin Thing” are for you. Greenwood’s sly guitar line on “A Hairdryer” might give older heads a Marquee Moon flashback, but Skinner’s skittering, cymbal-heavy drum work propels the song into entirely new territory. On the tense, peppy “We Don’t Know What Tomorrow Brings,” Greenwood expertly finds space in and around a wall of synth fuzz and thick bass, offering a subtly effective counterpoint to Yorke’s urgent vocal melody.
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Fans who bemoan Radiohead’s abandonment of its The Bends-era sound will positively die for “You Will Never Work in Television Again,” a pulse-quickening, three-chord rocker that could be mistaken for an outtake from 1995. “All those beautiful young hopes and dreams, devoured by those evil eyes and those piggy limbs,” Yorke sneers as his bandmates chug along in perfect locomotion behind him.
“The Smoke” has the head-nodding, bottom-end ambiance of Can circa Future Days and a sublime but brief chorus, with the London Symphony Orchestra providing tasteful and effective adornments in just the right spots. At 53, Yorke remains something of a vocal unicorn — his falsetto is majestic on “Speech Bubbles” and the ghostly, inscrutable “Pana-vision,” while his lower register imparts an enveloping warmth to “Waving a White Flag,” which imagines an alternate universe Beethoven accidentally discovering how to loop and tweak out a bassoon.
Elsewhere, the wobbly synths and old-timey piano chords of “Open the Floodgates” (first lyric: “don’t bore us / get to the chorus”) are reminiscent of Air’s Talkie Walkie, while the “Man in the Mirror”-referencing “Free in the Knowledge” is an affecting ballad with a reassuring message amid doomsday times: “Free in the knowledge that one day this will end / Free in the knowledge that everything is change / And this was just a bad moment.”
It’s rare when two creative forces like Yorke and Greenwood step away from their still-active primary band and create something this worthwhile on its own merits, and who knows how, if at all, the experience will influence Radiohead’s canon moving forward. No matter what happens, A Light for Attracting Attention is a most welcome vibe flip from musicians who absolutely refuse to shy away from the unknown. And if that doesn’t put a smile on your face at this late date, lord knows what will.