Thom Yorke has felt afraid for a long time. Through his band Radiohead’s 30-year career, as well as his various side-projects and solo work, Yorke has become something of a multimedia doomsayer, focusing his work on topics such as environmental disaster, political failings, and the numbing effect of technology on advanced society. Whether he's singing, playing, dancing, or drawing, the end of the world as we know it always feels a little closer when engaging with a Thom Yorke project.
There’s some power in unveiling the dark underbelly of life in the 21st century, but where the real weight of Yorke’s work comes from is the fear that lies at its very root. You can’t be afraid for something if you don’t care about it, which points to why fear is so crucial to his worldview as an artist. Anyone can hold a magnifying glass, but it takes something more to truly understand what is revealed and to see past it into something new. Yorke’s greatest strength as an artist is wrenching suggestive beauty from decided chaos—when he’s talking about the end of the world, it’s not only endings that he’s talking about, but new possibilities and beginnings. Thom Yorke is not smug, cynical, or nihilistic—he’s afraid.
His fear has a new home in the form of the band The Smile. Comprising Yorke and his longtime Radiohead-bandmate and Academy Award-nominated composer Jonny Greenwood as well as the drummer Tom Skinner, The Smile released their debut album, A Light for Attracting Attention, on May 13.
A Light for Attracting Attention will not surprise listeners familiar with Radiohead aesthetically. It’s the thing released by either Yorke or Greenwood that most resembles Radiohead without actually bearing its name. Trimmed down to just two of its members and adding Skinner—who comes from London’s jazz scene—The Smile’s debut is a little leaner and looser than a typical Radiohead album. But the seamless integration of electronic and rock music with frequently off-kilter time signatures and Greenwood’s lush orchestration on A Light for Attracting Attention are not much further than stone’s throw into a moon-shaped pool away from a late-career Radiohead album.
What A Light for Attracting Attention might lack in surprises, it compensates for with quality. The album unfolds beautifully across 13 tracks that range from serene (“Open the Floodgates,” “Free in the Knowledge”) to funky (“The Smoke,” “The Opposite”) to biting (“You Will Never Work in Television Again,” “We Don’t Know What Tomorrow Brings”). It includes some of the most confounding yet concise compositions of Yorke and Greenwood’s career, like the sinewy “Thing Thing” or relentless “A Hairdryer,” a quality that surely owes to the agile drumming of Tom Skinner as much as it does to Greenwood’s singular talent as a composer and guitarist. It’s shocking how invigorated A Light for Attracting Attention sounds, given Yorke and Greenwood are now well into their 50s and have achieved more than any other rock band has in the past three decades. They didn’t have to go this hard, but we are extremely lucky they did.
What is most striking about A Light for Attracting Attention is how comfortable it sounds despite bearing all the same gloomy subject matter of Yorke’s other work. Yorke’s performances on past albums often sounded tortured by what he was singing about, his voice maudlin, maddened, or bitter in varying degrees. Here he sounds confident and assured, like a reliable guide through a dreary landscape. That’s not to suggest the album feels watered-down or muted—Yorke’s elegiac voice is as gripping as ever—it’s just that there doesn’t feel much need to worry about the person on the other side of the music on this album. Nowhere is this more apparent than the opening track, “The Same,” where Yorke punctuates lines calling for cooperation by singing, “Please!” It’s not hard to imagine these pleas being delivered through gritted-teeth on Radiohead albums like Hail to the Thief, but here they sound open and inviting at the same time that they sound desperate. Yorke has been here a long time and he has the wisdom to know all of the snags of working in a medium as jagged as the apocalyptic—he’s not going to get cut.
Questions might linger as to why these songs belong to this band and not Radiohead, but The Smile’s debut is a welcome one. Fearful of where we are headed, it returns to prayers Thom Yorke has been making for a longtime—that we might recognize the inhumanity in our normal, choose not to accept the unacceptable, and reach for something better. “Turns out we’re in this together, both me and you,” he sings on “Free in the Knowledge. May it be so. (XL Recordings)