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Can Thom Yorke escape his own voice?

Photos by Helle Arensbak / Leon Neal / Rich Fury / Getty Images
Design by Jackie Lay

Thom Yorke's voice unfurls in a wordless incantation. It winds over a tense guitar line, contracting and expanding like bands of ice breaking solid rock. Yorke arcs again and again toward cracks in his own tone, then recedes, as if he doesn't have the wherewithal to sing exactly what he feels, to push past his own asymptotic threshold of language. It sounds a lot like classic Radiohead — specifically, the back half of "Street Spirit (Fade Out)," where Yorke hummed over seesawing guitars until he finally told us to immerse our souls in love. But this is actually "Read the Room," the third track from The Smile's new Wall of Eyes, slinking toward a Radiohead-like denouement of confusion.

The Smile, it must be said now, is more than some mere burial ground for Radiohead discards or a reason to remember its bygone glory. Indeed, at The Smile's best, you might even momentarily forget that the two most important members (Yorke and guitarist Jonny Greenwood) of this century's most important rock band so far (that is, Radiohead) comprise two-thirds of the band (with versatile and sharp jazz-plus drummer Tom Skinner being the third). On the trio's rangy 2022 debut, A Light for Attracting Attention, Yorke and Greenwood occasionally even sounded reborn inside sharp, splenetic, direct rock.

Elsewhere, they worked through exactly what kind of band they wanted to be for 13 songs — taut and lean, as on "Thin Thing"; billowing and gorgeous, as on "Free in the Knowledge"; or tangled and inward, as on "Skrting on the Surface." With five less tracks, Wall of Eyes starts to circumnavigate an actual answer. Its songs come bound by a rhythmic intricacy and lyrical exasperation that, taken in tandem, suggest trying to hold life or the world together for a little bit longer.

But the inevitable thrill of a very good new Radiohead-adjacent project has now faded. The Smile, after all, is no longer a surprise. The band has shifted into a life of its own, putting out records at a quicker clip than the mothership ever managed (the Kid A-Amnesiac one-two excepted).

One question now lingers, though, epitomized by those ululations at the end of "Read the Room": Can Yorke ever sound like anything other than Radiohead's ringleader?

It is inevitable, of course, to compare The Smile to Radiohead. It is also lazy and reductive to say they are the same, especially since Wall of Eyes says so much more about the kind of band they want to be. And that's not really like Radiohead. They are more than a surrogate or replacement for a group that hasn't played a show since 2021 or released an album in eight years, with interests and skills their bigger predecessor never really expressed.

Skinner is key to these distinctions. A magnetic and restless drummer, his motion serves as both prompt and foundation for the trio. His stilted fills during the first half of "Read the Room" keep the song set on edge, as if Yorke's voice and Greenwood's guitar are forever working to not slip into a waiting abyss. As Yorke and Greenwood bob in an aquatic dreamspace during "Teleharmonic," Skinner is the mooring line beneath their buoy, the thing to which the vertiginous vocals and electronics cling for security.

And his stuttering snares and quick cymbal hits during "Friend of a Friend" are brilliant, unsettling what's essentially a soul song just enough that it is entirely logical when it morphs into a phantasm for its final minute. The song's slow movement from the seemingly simple to the completely surreal is why it works, why it feels so transportive every time you hear it. Radiohead would have likely complicated it, bending it from the start or countering its pure Muscle Shoals tones with extra textures. That The Smile doesn't feels like a major development.

Such moments abound here, reminders of what Radiohead might not allow, at least during their latter days. The steroidal noise-rock surge at the end of the wondrous "Bending Hectic" comes as a complete shock, as does the improvisational imbalance of the song's start, as though the band is figuring out its shape in real time. The song even hinges on a rather rare bit of narrative writing from Yorke, as he speeds along in a soft-topped sportster on some steep Italian mountainside, wondering whether or not he wants to make it down alive. "I'm letting go of the wheel," he sings at last, his voice sinking into oblivion as the London Contemporary Orchestra's strings shriek, the very hounds of hell coming up to meet him.

When the band returns with sudden thunder, Yorke recants, his voice strained and forceful now. That familiar old falsetto is there, but he sounds momentarily like a different singer, able to muscle his way into a new context with aplomb. "Bending Hectic" is Wall of Eyes' absolute masterpiece — and maybe The Smile's, too, at least so far — because it ducks those dogged comparisons so completely.

But, mostly, Yorke very much sounds like the guy from Radiohead, which, of course, he is. His habits and inclinations from the band he has led for three decades are imported here, as if he's restoring a new phone from an old backup. His up-and-down motion during "Under Our Pillows" summons the agitprop ofHail to the Thief, the ponderous crooning of "I Quit" the circular abstractions ofThe King of Limbs. Most every moment on Wall of Eyes can be mapped, at least for Yorke, to some counterpart within Radiohead's nine albums.

That's been at least partially true for all of his side projects, from his work withBurial and Four Tet and his solo albums to the supergroupAtoms for Peace. It's a bit like seeing the lead actor in your favorite show suddenly playing a support role somewhere else; every time you recognize a tic from the past, you suddenly snap out of the present, transported by association to something you know. These aren't benign or passive memories, either: For at least two decades of Radiohead, Yorke mined circa-millenium confusion and anxiety better than almost all of his peers, all his vocal rage, exasperation and exhaustion mapping what it felt like to worry if you kept apace with a world that was only speeding up. When he conjures Radiohead in The Smile, he conjures those old (if entirely relevant) pangs in those who know Radiohead well. Yorke is hamstrung by his own history, us by our own familiarity with it.

Is that his fault? Maybe. Yorke's voice was once more adaptable, able to bend to wispy highs and unsettling lows alongside the band as needed. But like a star athlete who's lost flexibility with age or any star who's convinced he's found the right way to work, he seems to have forsaken that edge of exploration, at least as a vocalist. In two albums, The Smile has developed in ways Yorke as the singer of a new band has not. In The Smile, he has not yet found a way to sing to the problems of this moment, the very core of Radiohead at its best, to pull his voice to the present. This is what stops The Smile from being taken seriously as more than a side-project, no matter how compelling Wall of Eyes often sounds.

Late into "I Quit," a hall of mirrors built from sunken piano and granular synthesis and distant drums, Yorke slides back into the song from a cresting wave of strings. He brings his sleepiest croon along. "A dead drop / This is the end of the trip," he offers blearily. "A new path out of the madness." It's hard to hear that and not ponder the future of Radiohead, a band that hasn't released new music since Brexit, Trump or COVID-19. If The Smile is now indeed the path out of the madness for Yorke and Greenwood, it remains a stretch to call it altogether new, as it has yet to outrun the epochal echoes of their past.

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Grayson Haver Currin
[Copyright 2024 NPR]