The thrill of 2022’s A Light for Attracting Attention, the debut album from the Smile, came largely from hearing Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood shake off the expectations of spearheading one of the world’s most important rock bands. More than a fulfillment of the Radiohead guitarist’s wish to make music that’s “90 per cent as good” but comes out “twice as often,” what ended up being most exciting about the project wasn’t a certain quality guarantee or the promise of consistency but the loosened boundaries that liberate every one of the band’s offshoots, navigated through the unshakable dynamic between Yorke and Greenwood and the grounding, intricate force of Tom Skinner’s drumming. Having already arrived as a living, breathing organism, it’s no surprise the Smile have returned just two years later with Wall of Eyes, not so much a refinement than a natural extension of the group’s creative alchemy, their exploratory instincts taking root and further outstretched.
On their debut, the Smile sounded revitalized and even impatient, managing to cram together disparate influences with an emphasis on groove. Its follow-up finds no use in harnessing the frenetic energy of tracks like ‘You Will Never Work in Television Again’, but it doesn’t mean their restlessness has subsided. For a record that can generally be described as more subdued than its predecessor, it’s strange how unsettled its restraint feels, each eerie detail and unresolved conclusion appearing to inch them out of, rather than sinking into, the ideal of graceful maturity. The opening title track both stirs the record to life and establishes a trance-like atmosphere, Greenwood’s string arrangements ominously cutting through a bossa nova strum that Skinner lends surprising gravity to. Yorke mutters and croons over its nebulous calm, which sprawls into ‘Teleharmonic’, a song that first appeared during the Peaky Blinders finale. Yet the second track has the effect of clearing the murk off the record’s ethereal intro, as swirling synths, Pete Wareham’s flute, and gliding bass mirror the flow of Yorke’s lyrics, still steeped in uncertainty but more openly emotional. It’s not only one of the most richly textured arrangements here, but one that highlights the group’s propensity to dig the soul out of the markedly obtuse.
The initial impression of Wall of Eyes as a more measured outing is further complicated by its ensuing tumble of contradictions, which the band expertly homes in. Paranoia takes different forms: collective and omnipresent on ‘Under Our Pillows’, where Greenwood’s guitar brilliantly spikes and locks into a motorik groove before dissolving into obscurity; ghostly and introspective on ‘I Quit’, in which Yorke tellingly forges “A new path/ Out of the madness/ To wherever it goes.” It’s the least spirited track on the record, which saves all its explosive energy for ‘Bending Hectic’, the eight-minute centerpiece that serves as the latest entry in Yorke’s songs about car accidents. It’s no traditional prog-rock epic – you can feel the fever as well as the band’s disinterest in using it to turn up the intensity, and when it eventually does culminate in a dramatic crescendo, turning rippling guitar into a storm of distortion, it’s both amplified and tastefully undercut by its lyrical ambiguity: “No way and no how/ I’m letting go of the wheel.”
The Smile’s stylistic excursions invariably find a home in the surreal; where Wall of Eyes diverges from A Light for Attracting Attention is that it doesn’t just feel musically and aesthetically cohesive, but structurally cinematic while evading narrative conventions. It’s the reason they can sound comfortably adrift and constantly unnerved, looser and more focused at the same time; why Yorke’s performance remains enchanting even as his lyrics provide less and less to latch onto (at least in the way of tangible angst); and why ‘Bending Hectic’ can reasonably belong on the same record as ‘Friend of a Friend’, a Beatles-esque piano-led tune that seems to revolt against its own conjuring of nostalgia. The album solidifies the logic of the Smile more than their sonic identity: stretching the familiar to the point where it no longer resembles its origin point yet remains inextricable from it.
Though inspired by lockdown videos of Italians singing to each other on their balconies, their unity contrasted with the specter of conservatism, fans may be eager to identify some essence of the Smile in ‘Friend of a Friend’. “I can go anywhere that I want / I just got to turn myself inside out and back to front,” Yorke sings on the song, which he wrote in the midst of touring. “They’re all smiling so I guess I’ll stay/ At least ’til the disappointed have eaten themselves away.” But there’s no sense of complacency on Wall of Eyes, which abounds with proof of a band alive with ideas, curiously bending them to shape until it’s no longer of service.