The Smile review – Yorke and Greenwood stay close to the mothership
Thom Yorke’s latest Radiohead spin-off, alongside Jonny Greenwood and Tom Skinner, excels the more it explores new territory in a thrilling frenzy of analogue synths and percussion
In primates, what looks like a smile usually signifies submission. In humans, it’s more complicated.
“There is a smile of love and there is a smile of deceit,” intones a disembodied voice – actor Cillian Murphy’s – at the start of the third live performance in a series by the Smile, the latest band headed up by Thom Yorke of Radiohead. The power trio is completed by fellow ’Head Jonny Greenwood, latter-day composer of film soundtracks, and drummer Tom Skinner of jazz activists Sons of Kemet. (Producer Nigel Godrich is a silent partner.) It’s a sunny January morning outside, contrasting with the dimly lit, alternative Sunday service indoors, in which a churchy Fender Rhodes features. The band have snuck a few hours’ kip after their earlier 11pm and 1am live streams. The only sign that they are not fresh as daisies is one slight mistake on one song.
The opening invocation is by William Blake, that great observer of humanity’s double nature. But there’s confusion too: last May, Yorke declared the Smile to be named after a particularly intense Ted Hughes poem. That confusion lingers. The songs that make up the Smile’s 15-song set list come under this new alias, but Yorke and Greenwood’s preoccupations and aesthetics are ongoing. In May, when the Smile debuted online at Glastonbury, they were hailed as a raw, almost post-punk outfit, in sharp contrast with Radiohead’s more rococo output.
Just Eyes and Mouth is practically Afrobeat, Greenwood’s guitar and Skinner’s kit doing genuinely new things
This morning, the clear blue water between the bands is less clear and less blue. As last spring, they play an unreleased song, previously thought to be by Radiohead – Skirting on the Surface. Yorke’s wracked croon takes centre stage and Greenwood’s effect-laden instrumentation now provides a trebly counterpoint. There is also Open the Floodgates, previously a solo Yorke tune, now warmed by the glow of Greenwood’s guitar notes and analogue blooping from the multi-talented Skinner, who frequently leaves the kit during this gig to man an electronic workstation. It climaxes as something akin to 60s systems music, one of the key features of the set.
As these songs spool out, it seems the Smile’s rawness has proved ephemeral. The vast bulk of these songs are intense, layered and feature Yorke’s vocals and Greenwood on guitar. Exactly how is this not a Radiohead gig? Because Colin Greenwood, Ed O’Brien and Phil Selway are not here? So many of Yorke’s non-Radiohead projects have privileged digitals over instrumentation. It has been easy to interpret his extracurricular activity as the restless singer exploring electronic sounds that other members of Radiohead did not wish to. But the Smile is chock-a-block with guitars – electric and acoustic – with live drumming, and harp for good measure.
Greenwood, who usually plays no part in Yorke’s side hustles, is in full swing in the Smile, fringe flopping, bowing his bass on Free in the Knowledge, hitting effects pedals with stockinged feet and playing keyboards with one hand as he attacks the harp with another on Speech Bubbles. (The downside is that the track sounds like three different songs being played simultaneously.)
Free in the Knowledge starts off very Radiohead. But the keening and spacious percussion that closes the track is a beautiful departure. As the gig unfolds, there’s a sense that the Smile have been tuning in to much older electronic music, with resonant analogue synths providing clear division between the bands – like the insistent oscillations of The Same. Obviously there’s the magnificent Skinner too, whose default time signature is trigonometric. While not strictly playing jazz, he scrapes bells along his hi-hats, lifting the trio with his dynamism. The hectic clatter of Thin Thing is a revelation, with all three instrumentalists going hell for leather. Just Eyes and Mouth is practically Afrobeat, Greenwood’s guitar and Skinner’s kit doing genuinely new things.
Most of those present (or tuning in online) will probably be thrilled at this not wildly novel iteration of the Yorke/Greenwood partnership. But the Smile are most musically convincing when they stretch farther away from Radiohead.
Two Smile songs are, by now, familiar. The Smoke finds Yorke playing dubby, hip-swivelling bass – traceable, perhaps, to the influence of Red Hot Chili Pepper Flea and his sinuous work in that other great Radiohead spin-off, Atoms for Peace.
The set ends with the excellently angry You Will Never Work in Television Again, whose lyrics about “bunga bunga” have confused those not familiar with the more unpleasant ins and outs of Italian public life in the Silvio Berlusconi era. (Yorke’s other half is a Sicilian actor.) The deceit of politicians is a welcome through line in Yorke’s work. It’s hard not to think of the Smile without thinking of Berlusconi’s shark-like dentistry, or the Tony Blair grimace.