The Smile review – Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood give prog rock tendencies full rein

The Radiohead duo, joined by Sons of Kemet drummer Tom Skinner, pair memorable dynamics with typically uneasy lyrics in an intriguing if meandering performance

In 1997, Radiohead’s bassist Colin Greenwood was asked about Pink Floyd, a band whose name kept being mentioned in relation to their then-new album OK Computer. His younger brother Jonny was a fan, he said, and had made the band watch the 1972 film Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii. “Dave Gilmour sitting on his arse playing guitar, and Roger Waters, with long, greasy hair, sandals and dusty flares, staggers over and picks up this big beater and whacks this gong,” he protested. “Ridiculous.”

It’s a quote that comes to mind while watching the live stream of the second gig by the Smile, the latest project from Jonny Greenwood and Thom Yorke – an album’s worth of material performed in the round before an audience, the band’s three members in a kind of circular cage made of LED strip lights – and considering what the difference is between the music they’re making and that of Radiohead. The most obvious point of departure is that the drum stool is occupied by Tom Skinner, of acclaimed London jazz band Sons of Kemet, whose presence noticeably alters the band’s rhythmic flow. He’s perfectly willing to play a pounding Neu!-inspired Motorik beat on We Don’t Know What Tomorrow Brings, but more often you notice the stuff that divulges his jazz chops: the suppleness and slipperiness about his playing, the emphases that don’t always appear where your rock-trained ears expect them. Equally, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that, in the Smile, Greenwood and Yorke are allowing their prog rock tendencies full rein, unencumbered by band mates’ grumbling about sandals and flares. Greenwood’s guitar riffs are complex and knotty – there’s a particularly fantastic, percussive example driving Thin Thing – the time signatures are frequently lurching and awkward, the songs’ structures are uniformly episodic. “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus,” sings Yorke on Open the Floodgates, presumably in character as the kind of unconscionable simpleton who requires such artless baubles: there certainly aren’t any choruses here.

the Smile.
‘When we get together, well then, who knows?’ … the Smile. Photograph: Wunmi Onibudo

There are, occasionally, beautiful melodies (Free in the Knowledge definitely has one amid the acoustic guitars and synths softly wailing like distant sirens; it recalls the kind of thing Neil Young once might have written) but, at risk of sounding like said unconscionable simpleton, they’re often sketchy and meandering. What you remember about these songs aren’t the tunes, but the sounds and dynamics: the techno kick drum on The Same, which is programmed slightly out of kilter with the electronics so it appears to lurch drunkenly rather than tether the song; the woozy bed of analogue synthesiser drones on Speech Bubbles, the naggingly odd piano riff on opener Panavision.

Elsewhere, there are notable similarities between what’s going on here and the sound Yorke and Greenwood make in their day job. Yorke’s voice, high and keening, is one of the most distinctive in rock; Radiohead’s latterday desire to meld rock and left-field electronica is much in evidence; the lyrical mood of the 14 songs they play is, well, very Radiohead, filled with dread and crushing but inevitable disappointment – “somebody is telling lies”, “what will become of us?”, “shame on you”, etc – emotions that one suspects have been sharpened by the fact these songs were formed during the Covid pandemic and the Boris Johnson administration. Free in the Knowledge even suggests revolution, albeit in that shaky, doubtful way familiar from Radiohead’s You and Whose Army? “When we get together, well then, who knows?” sings Yorke, but it doesn’t feel like a call to arms, more a distracted mutter.

“OK I guess if you like this kind of thing,” offers Thin Thing. It’s far too harsh a judgment to say: well there’s the review written for you. Nevertheless, there’s certainly a grain of truth within it. It’s a performance that’s intriguing rather than dazzling, intermittently spellbinding, filled with fascinating ideas that don’t always coalesce.

  • The Smile is available to stream on demand for a 48 hour period from 2pm GMT on 30 January.

  • This review was updated on 30 January 2022 to correct an error: the concert was not sponsored by Spotify. It was further amended on 31 January 2022 to correct a misspelling of Jonny Greenwood’s first name as “Johnny”.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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