“There was a point a year and a half ago when I wondered whether I would be doing this again,” admitted Thom Yorke on stage at the Albert Hall last October. “I’m a British musician, and I was told during the pandemic, like all British musicians, that I should consider retraining. And after we finally left [the EU] they told us we didn’t really need to tour around Europe anyway, did we? So perhaps I’m one of a dying breed… who knows?”
That classic Radiohead sense of embattled, paranoid defiance was only amplified by Mark Jenkin’s video for The Smile’s “Skrting On The Surface”, released in March, which cast Yorke as a miner, 200 feet beneath Cornwall, his face grimy with soot and sweat as he trundled his lonely cart down a rail track.
Is UK indie rock one more venerable heartland industry to be blithely cast onto the national slagheap? Could Thom and Jonny Greenwood’s next jobs be in cyber? It’d take a heart of stone not to smirk – but there’s something heartening about Yorke and Greenwood’s vocational commitment to angular, knotty, intensely pissed-off art-rock. While their ’90s contemporaries have wandered far and wide in search of fresh purpose in the 21st century, they have remained steadfast, even when venturing through abstract electronica or orchestral soundtracks, in mining the same rich seam of truculence and awe.
So much so that The Smile, ostensibly a lockdown project for Thom, Jonny and Sons Of Kemet drummer Tom Skinner, along with long-time producer Nigel Godrich, feels more like a refreshment, refinement or even fulfilment of Radiohead core principles, rather than an extracurricular dalliance. An early version of “Skrting…” was in fact a feature of the parent band’s live shows at least as far back as The King Of Limbs, while the surging, splenetic debut single “You Will Never Work In Television Again” (“He’s fat fucking mist/Young bones spat out/Girls slitting their wrists…”) suggests the apprentice work of a neural network trained on the Yorke lyrical canon. On the irresistible one-two of “Open The Floodgates” into “Free In The Knowledge”, he even ventures as close as he’s come to the acoustic balladry of The Bends in a couple of decades.
Funnily enough, though A Light… feels on first listen like Continuity Radiohead, you might find the source or mother lode in a backstage performance from 2008, just Yorke and Greenwood with a couple of acoustic guitars, fingerpicking through Portishead’s “The Rip” as though they had just come up with it in an idle jam session. The album begins with the forlorn life-support bleep of a fritzing antique Moog, and it surfaces like a subterranean river throughout an album which seems to chart the same blasted, war-torn landscape as Portishead’s Third.
Sensationally so on “Speech Bubbles”, the beautifully mournful centrepiece of the record, set in the eerie calm after a terror attack (“Devastation has come, left in a station with a mortar bomb”). The serpentine guitar figure might be a cousin of the one that unravelled through the verses of “Paranoid Android”, but what takes the track to a new dimension is Greenwood’s orchestration. If Robert Kirby’s strings once roamed over the vales of Nick Drake songs like the cumulus clouds in a Constable landscape, then here Greenwood’s rippling piano, breaking through looming uneasy strings and woodwind, feels like a sunbeam in an otherwise foreboding Ravilious seascape.
On “The Smoke”, Greenwood’s heady brew of horns and flutes rise moodily and magnificently through Tom Skinner’s cavernous beat, like steam from the streets of New York in some early-’70s blaxpoitation movie. In fact, it feels like Skinner is the catalyst that’s refreshed the Yorke–Greenwood creative bromance. Around The King Of Limbs, Radiohead felt the need to add a second drummer to supplement Phil Selway on the songs’ skittering polyrhythms, but Skinner seems to be a one-man rhythm factory, turning his hands impressively from motorik to afrobeat, from algebraic math-rock to the avant-garage racket of Sonic Youth circa Daydream Nation.
And maybe it’s Skinner’s presence too that helps usher songs like “Pana-Vision” from the fringes of Satie to the kind of afro-futurist soundworlds Bowie approached with the help of Donny McCaslin on Blackstar. “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus”, sings Thom, quoting the immortal words of Roxette, on the hymnal “Open The Floodgates”, but at its best A Light… feels like a subtle jazz improvisation on old Radiohead themes, finding new paths through familiar territory.
“I’m stuck in a rut in a flatland drainage ditch/And I’m drowning in irrelevance”, Yorke squawks on “We Don’t Know What Tomorrow Brings”, which races nervily like Magazine trying their hand at Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” – but in truth he hasn’t sounded so invigorated and energised since the days of Kid A. If Radiohead’s hiatus is looking increasingly permanent, then The Smile will do very nicely.