Album of the week: The Smile’s Wall of Eyes is a gear shift for Thom Yorke

Defying categorisation: The Smile
Defying categorisation: The Smile - Frank Lebon

Side projects in pop are fascinating things. Some fly but more fizzle, as the experiences of Damon Albarn and David Bowie make plain. For every Gorillaz there are two Tin Machines.

And while the second album by The Smile – a trio comprising Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood from festival headlining sonic adventurers Radiohead and Tom Skinner from jazz globalists Sons of Kemet – might lack the commercial appeal of Albarn’s cartoon hip hop outfit, it’s a thrilling and significant album that positions the band as major players.

The Smile sit at the nexus of where jazz, math rock, art punk and crepuscular acoustic gorgeousness meet, if such a place exists. To say the music is minimalist would be misleading, but Radiohead’s occasionally neurotic tendencies are dialled right down, as though this is an album created in their vapours. The track Read the Room, for example, opens with a glitchy spiders’ web of guitar motifs that spread and thicken like an analogue switchboard lighting up, before the drum and bass roll in to create a deep mid-paced groove, courtesy of Skinner’s drumming. It’s loose and has a decompressing effect in a way that Radiohead – for all their brilliance – don’t have.

Friend of a Friend is sweet – again, a word you’d never use with Radiohead. It’s a fantastic multi-tempo piano-led song that sounds as though Paul McCartney stumbled across a copy of In Rainbows while sauntering down Penny Lane and gave it a toke on something relaxing.

Wall of Eyes comprises just eight tracks but it’s far from slight. String arrangements by the London Contemporary Orchestra add a lush cinematic quality to the album. But the android is still paranoid – this is Yorke and Greenwood after all. Under Our Pillows has an angular guitar riff that suggests the apocalypse is around the corner. Meanwhile the closing quarter of the eight minute-long Bending Hectic features a squalling guitar-led wig-out as Yorke sings a defiant refrain. The song is about a vintage soft-top car plunging down an Italian mountainside. “The ground is coming for me now/ We’ve gone over the edge,” he sings.

On closing track You Know Me! we hear Yorke’s familiar falsetto set against the slightest of musical backgrounds. “Don’t think that I am everything you say,” Yorke sings, challenging us to categorise him.

This feels like a step change from The Smile’s first album, 2022’s A Light for Attracting Attention. A cursory glance at the size of the venues that The Smile are playing on their vast tour later this year (London’s 10,000-capacity Alexandra Palace and Bulgaria’s 18,000-capacity Arena Sofia to name but two) suggest that the band feel the same.

Best new songs of the week

By Poppie Platt

Chiedu Oraka - Rhythm of my Pain

“I’m not trying to be liked / I’m trying to fight off oppression,” raps the Hull-born rapper in this emotionally-charged retort to the London-centric nature of grime and his struggles with mental illness

Gossip - Real Power

And they’re back! The US indie trio, led by ferocious frontwoman Beth Ditto, broke into the mainstream in the early Noughties with tracks like Standing in the Way of Control. Real Power is Ditto’s rabble-rousing response to BLM, but above all else, a proper dancefloor filler.

Justice - One Night All Night

The French electronic duo won a Grammy for their last album (2018’s Woman Worldwide) and this sizzling anthem marks a return to form, while promising that summer nights spent dancing outside aren’t that far away.

Noah Kahan and Sam Fender - Homesick

Kahan’s singalong-ready folk-pop has made him a breakout star: his song Stick Season has been number one in the UK for a month, and he’ll probably win Best New Artist at the Grammys in February. Here, he teams up with Geordie indie hero Sam Fender for an affecting look at escaping your small hometown – and feeling like there’s a piece of you missing ever after.

Pillow Queens - Gone

A searing slice of modern grunge, this: the Irish, all-female quartet have become known as one of the best live bands on the scene, and Gone – chock full of fuzzy guitars and bitterness at feeling second best – is designed to get crowds thrashing.

The Klittens - Reading Material

Hailing from Amsterdam, this all-female five-piece mix whimsy, lo-fi beats with soul-searching lyrics; guitarist Wennie wrote this song while seriously ill, resting and fatigued, using it as a diary of-sorts (“Time flies by whether we’re having fun (Or not)”).