The Smile review – Thom Yorke on jolly and utterly joyful form

<span>At ease … the Smile’s Thom Yorke at Eventim Apollo, London. </span><span>Photograph: Sonja Horsman/the Guardian</span>
At ease … the Smile’s Thom Yorke at Eventim Apollo, London. Photograph: Sonja Horsman/the Guardian

The precise status of the Smile is intriguingly TBC. Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood began making music with Sons of Kemet drummer Tom Skinner to stay busy during the pandemic and they have already released more music in two years than Radiohead have managed in 15. While Yorke’s solo albums were clearly a side hustle – opaque, electronic, on the run from tunes – and Greenwood’s film scores something else entirely, the Smile have enough substance to rival the day job. The restless Greenwood once said he wished that Radiohead albums were “90 per cent as good, but come out twice as often” and this is one way of getting his wish.

Related: The Smile: Wall of Eyes review | Alexis Petridis’s album of the week

The Smile’s freewheeling versatility is doubly impressive live. Backlit by an LED screen which seems to manifest the title of new album Wall of Eyes, they take in galloping jazz-rock, neurotic Afrobeat, giallo terror-synths, slinky dub reggae, the hairier end of krautrock and, in the shape of the tremendous, strobe-lit Bending Hectic, a classic slow-burning rock anthem. The instrumentation, too, mutates from song to song. Half-hidden by his eternally youthful mop of hair, Greenwood wrenches an orchestra of options out of his guitar and hops from synthesiser to piano to harp on Speech Bubbles alone. Saxophonist Robert Stillman punches up the intensity, notably on majestic new song Instant Psalm.

While Yorke’s lyrics are the usual labyrinth of suspicions, phobias and vendettas, his between-song energy could almost qualify as jolly. He kicks off the Can-like Zero Sum with a growl of “here we fucking go” and whips the crowd into roaring the crony-bashing final refrain of Friend of a Friend. Perhaps the singer’s ease is down to the pleasure of flying free from expectations, playing new material without sensing fans itching for Paranoid Android.

For many years, every record Yorke was involved in felt like some kind of argument, repudiation or escape strategy. This band, however, follows every lead and says yes to every good idea. Their name is probably some barbed reference to surveillance capitalism or political doublespeak but tonight’s joyful adventure suggests a simpler reading. Smile!

Touring the UK until 23 March