The Smile review – Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood give vent to progressive rock trends | pop and rock
In 1997, Radiohead bassist Colin Greenwood was asked about Pink Floyd, a band whose name kept coming up in connection with their new album, OK Computer. His younger brother Jonny was a fan, he said, and made the group watch the 1972 film Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii. “Dave Gilmour sitting on his ass playing guitar, and Roger Waters, with long greasy hair, dusty sandals and flares, staggers around and picks up this big drummer and hits this gong,” he protested. “Ridiculous.”
It’s a quote that comes to mind watching the live broadcast of The Smile’s second gig, Johnny Greenwood and Thom Yorke’s latest project – an album’s worth of material played in the round in front of an audience, the three band members in a kind of a circular cage made of LED light strips – and considering the difference between the music they make and that of Radiohead. The most obvious starting point is that the drum stool is occupied by Tom Skinner, of the famous London jazz group Sons of Kemet, whose presence noticeably alters the rhythmic flow of the group. He’s all set to play a Neu-inspired Motorik beat! on We Don’t Know What Tomorrow Brings, but more often than not you notice what reveals his jazz skills: the flexibility and the slipperiness of his playing, the accents that don’t. always appear where your rock-trained ears expect them. Likewise, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that, in The Smile, Greenwood and Yorke are letting their progressive rock leanings run wild, unhindered by bandmates’ grunts about sandals and flares. Greenwood’s guitar riffs are complex and gnarly – there’s one particularly fantastical, percussive example leading Thin Thing – time signatures are often wavering and clunky, song structures are uniformly episodic. “Don’t bore us, skip to the chorus,” Yorke sings on Open the Floodgates, probably in character with the kind of unreasonable simpleton who needs such naive trinkets: there’s definitely no chorus here.
There are, once in a while, beautiful melodies (Free in the Knowledge definitely has one amid acoustic guitars and synths moaning softly like distant sirens; it’s reminiscent of the kind of thing Neil Young might have once written ) but, at the risk of sounding like that inadmissible simpleton, they are often sketchy and meandering. What you remember from these songs are not the tunes, but the sounds and dynamics: The Same’s techno bass drum, which is programmed slightly out of step with the electronics, so that it seems to wobble drunk rather than tying the song; the woozy bed of analog synthesizer drones on Speech Bubbles, the eerie haunting piano riff on the Panavision opener.
Elsewhere, there are notable similarities between what’s going on here and the sound Yorke and Greenwood make in their day-to-day work. Yorke’s high-pitched, high-pitched voice is one of rock’s most distinctive; Radiohead’s current desire to merge rock and left-wing electronica is in evidence; the lyrical vibe of the 14 songs they play is, well, very Radiohead, filled with dread and overwhelming but inevitable disappointment – “someone is telling lies”, “what will become of us?” shame on you”, etc – emotions which one suspects have been heightened by the fact that these songs were formed during the Covid pandemic and the Boris Johnson administration. Free in the Knowledge even suggests revolution, albeit in that shaky, dubious way familiar from Radiohead’s You and Whose Army? “When we meet again, well, who knows? Yorke sings, but it doesn’t sound like a call to arms, more like a distracted mumble.
“OK, I guess if you like that sort of thing,” Thin Thing offers. It’s far too harsh a judgment to say, well, the review is written for you. Nevertheless, there is certainly a grain of truth in it. It’s a performance that’s more intriguing than dazzling, intermittently haunting, filled with fascinating ideas that don’t always come together.
The Smile is available to stream on demand for a 48-hour period from 2pm GMT on January 30.
This review was updated on Sunday January 30 to correct an error: the concert was not sponsored by Spotify.