The Smile review: a stunning preview of tantalising Radiohead spin-off

Thom Yorke performing to a sold-out audience at The Smile’s first live show since virtual Glasto last year  (Wunmi Onibudo)
Thom Yorke performing to a sold-out audience at The Smile’s first live show since virtual Glasto last year (Wunmi Onibudo)

“Must feel weird to get out finally, does for me,” Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke told a sold-out audience at Magazine on Saturday.

It was his new band The Smile’s first performance in front of a live audience since their unveiling at Glastonbury’s virtual event last summer. Made up of Radiohead bandmate Jonny Greenwood, Sons of Kemet drummer Tom Skinner and produced by long-term collaborator Nigel Godrich, the group delivered three separate gigs throughout the night in the intimate setting, all scheduled so fans around the world could tune in via livestream.

“We don’t have much, but we’ll give you what we’ve got – which is this,” Yorke smiled on the stylish circular stage, surrounded by vertical strobes. The gig began in poetic fashion with Peaky Blinders actor Cillian Murphy delivering a dramatic pre-recorded rendition of William Blake’s The Smile. “This is a smile of love, this is a smile of deceit,” he read, before the haunting piano of Pana-vision began.

Featuring Yorke’s trademark falsetto, the Blakean theme continued on an opener exploring innocence before excellent new single The Smoke rooted itself firmly in experience. The song’s earworm – the driving bassline played by Yorke – was lauded by fans, as was the dreamy follow-up Speech Bubbles, which saw Greenwood dexterously playing the harp and piano simultaneously.

There was a relaxed feel to the group, perhaps promoted by the setting (it’s certainly been a while since Radiohead have played venues this size), but also through the freedom the new project has seemingly brought. Greenwood was shoeless, walking about the stage casually in socks, while Yorke seemed playful – especially when gently chastising a latecomer. At another point, Greenwood hugged Skinner.

Comparisons to Radiohead will be inevitable and the material sits somewhere between the uneasy dystopia of Hail to the Thief and the hopeful beauty of In Rainbows. An old Radiohead bootleg, Skrting On The Surface, was given an imaginative re-work mid-set, and the heavier songs in The Smile’s repertoire recall Radiohead’s rockier The Bends-era, like The Opposite and fearless first single, You Will Never Work In Television Again.

The Smile (Wunmi Onibudo)
The Smile (Wunmi Onibudo)

Yet The Smile’s material stands up strongly on its own, especially thanks to Skinner. As well as the imaginative time-signatures, when Skinner ventures away from the drums and onto electro-duties, this is where the band feels at their most distinctive.

Take set standout Open The Floodgates, with its lush and expansive electronica, and Free In The Knowledge with its haunting, angelic-trumpeted orchestral that progresses into a stunning Yorke melody. While each of the band member’s other side projects often deconstruct songs, here there is bold commitment to melody that feels unique to The Smile.

The songs are threaded by another Blakean theme: the fragility of life when faced with oppression. “One of the things I’ve’s quite possible that us human beings are quite similar in actual fact,” Yorke said reflectively, introducing new song The Same.

“Apparently, we’re all in our little factions and we all have to fight one another. B******* we do,” he said about this politically-tinged song that pleads, “Please, we are all the same.” Free In The Knowledge continues in the same vein. “One day...this will end...We’re in this together,” Yorke gently sang, striking a hopeful post-pandemic note on this call for unity.

While many musical side-projects are often less than the sum of their main-project whole, The Smile feels different. With the promise from Yorke at the set’s close of more to come, combined with an audience already wanting more, this stunning preview gave a tantalising glimpse of what could become of the most exciting musical spin-offs in years.