It’s been seven years since the last Radiohead album, which is the longest the band has ever gone without releasing one. It remains to be seen if they ever will again, but two members, Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood, formed a new outfit called The Smile, and after debuting in 2022, are already onto their second album.
Listening to A Light For Attracting Attention, The Smile’s first album, or this follow-up Wall of Eyes, it’s easy to start wondering what the other members of Radiohead bring to the table. Turns out, quite a lot, as these are markedly different beasts, despite Yorke and Greenwood being the band’s most prominent members.
In an interview with Ed O’brien, Radiohead’s second guitarist, he said that their infamously tortured writing process was generally smooth until they got to the editing phase, which is when the arguments tended to start.
The band’s approach since 2000’s Kid A has been to deconstruct each song and rebuild it, or try a lot of different approaches till they find the best one. This has always resulted in compelling arrangements, but by all accounts drives them crazy. And The Smile albums feel like a direct response.
The first was produced by Nigel Godrich, who did the same for most Radiohead albums, but this one was helmed by Sam Petts Davies, who’s worked with Yorke and Greenwood on various projects, going back to OK Computer, where he recorded strings for one of the b-sides.
They tracked Wall of Eyes at Abbey Road, and it sounds like an attempt by the band to get back to basics - drums, bass, guitar - and lay down their ideas without too much fuss.
‘Teleharmonic’ is a good example of drummer Tom Skinner filling some of the resulting space with rolling cymbals and lots of tom hits. His background in jazz shines through.
‘Friend of a Friend’ rolls along a classic Yorke chord progression, amiably Beatles-esque then much more sinister just a few moments later. Skinner falls into more traditional timekeeping, and Greenwood lathers up a typically lush string arrangement.
Wall of Eyes is just eight tracks long, with two of them operating in the twitchy math-rock mode Yorke and Greenwood fall into occasionally. To my ears they’re the most disposable cuts here, with the rest being basically ballads, something Radiohead do particularly well.
There’s a minimum of electronic embellishment, coming closest on ‘I Quit’, which skips across a stuttering, tremolo-heavy mix.
Reviews for Wall of Eyes have been glowing, and I have to admit I was slightly taken aback by this. Yorke’s falsetto is always glorious, as are Greenwood’s arrangements, but while the pairs’ songs usually impress me immediately, these seemed less accessible.
It’s a simmering slow burn of an album, and the mode does suit them: several listens in, the tracks are beginning to open up for me. But it did take some effort. Maybe somewhere subconscious I resent that we may never get another Radiohead album. But this is the next best thing.