Review Summary: Waving a Red Flag
Disclaimer: This review is as much a narrative and a diatribe as it is a review of the album. If you are looking for an objective and focused review, look elsewhere.
When a friend of mine sent me a link to a Radiohead side project in May of 2022, I was not excited. After attempting and failing to appreciate the respective solo projects of Yorke, Greenwood, and even O’Brien, I had little hope for The Smile. In addition to the album link, my friend sent a caption: “Thin Thing is pretty cool.” So I listened to it, and I was pleasantly surprised. Thin Thing was pretty cool.
“Skrting [below] the Surface”
Positively and unexpectedly intrigued, I spent the next few weeks digesting the album, which grew on me with each proverbial spin (until it became literal. The yellow vinyl sounds great). After the understated opener, “The Same,” the album opens up and comes into its own by finding a delicate balance between pulsing electronics and punchy rhythms with a pervasive ethereal undercurrent. The album does not ebb and flow as much as it ushers in a steady tide of electric grooves augmented by the subtleties of Yorke’s wailing moans, Greenwood’s bluesy riffs, and Skinner’s restrained backbeats that are curiously predictable and straightforward for a jazz drummer. Wasted percussive potential aside, the album gives the impression that each of these accomplished musicians has nothing to prove, and that the three of them got together with the singular aim of making an album for the pure pleasure of creating it, much to the listener’s gain. Some have argued, perhaps rightly, that the album is back-heavy and the first half is weak, but I hear an album that thrives on subtlety, insidiously building energy and powering up along the way before the apt farewell of “Skrting on the Surface,” almost structured like a Berlin-era-Bowie album in reverse. “Open the Floodgates” is a particular favorite of mine, reminiscent of the Radiohead song “Worrywort” in its electronic-forward disregard for standard song structure. The song’s formula is also reminiscent of “Where You’ve Been,” a Casualties of Cool b-side, a similarity I might not have noticed (or contrived) but for the following experience.
“We Don’t Know What Tomorrow Brings”
By July I knew the album thoroughly, having listened to it daily for a long stretch before shelving it intentionally so as to avoid burning myself out on it. This intentional hiatus led up to a long-planned camping trip to Central Wisconsin, which was nominal camping at best; my brother rented a cabin. Friday night was a drunkfest in which a group of young adults past their prime and screaming towards thirty fought off the fatigue of the work week with varying results. My cousin (we’ll call him Mike) was one of the last ones awake, but he drank entirely too much vodka and proceeded to puke all over his bed and his new wife before spending the next six hours with his head buried in a toilet. After a mere three hours of sleep, Mike woke up and recounted the night's events to me. Knowing that after a night of such hell alcohol had likely lost its allure, and me being the charitable guy I am, I offered him some acid (the real reason being that he was the only one with any shot of partaking with me). Mike accepted immediately, to my surprise and his wife’s chagrin. The events that followed Mike would subsequently call “The Gauntlet.”
The acid kicked in just as people were getting up and back into party mode, a mode we had no choice but to enter with them. We drank, not casually as we might have preferred, but by ripping shots and playing snipe and shotgunning beers and entering a beer pong tournament, a double-elimination tournament which an old friend of mine and I came back to win after losing the very first game, but that drug-addled hero’s journey is a tale for another time. One of our friends decided to bring a chest of mortars which he set off intermittently and surreptitiously, the reactions to which ranged from jarring to eternally significant. Mike and I, spun and drunk and yearning for peace and quiet didn’t get our wish until the sun had long since set and the drunkards, unfueled by psychedelics, tuckered themselves out with the exception of Mike’s wife, Laura, with whom neither alcohol nor hallucinogens agreed. At long last, we were allowed the kind of trip we sought.
"A Light for Attracting Attention"
I fed the fire and the three of us circled around the glowing nucleus on the back patio. The relief was palpable. I killed whatever party playlist was presently assaulting us and put on Casualties of Cool. Mike, Laura, and I smoked and talked and laughed as Devin’s haunted country songs heralded the transition from chaos to order. By the time we were well into the bonus songs, Laura was fed up listening to “clicks and creaks,” so I put on A Light for Attracting Attention, and the album made more sense to me then than it ever had or likely will again. “Pana-Vision” took on a whole new meaning. Laura got up and danced alone to “You Will Never Work in Television Again,” for a fleeting moment forgetting her anxiety and fatigue. “What band is this?” Mike asked. I finally understood why my friend, the one who recommended the album, heard System of a Down in the beat of “A Hairdryer.” Yorke’s disjointed lyrics, usually a source of irritation for me, revealed a lucidity they never had before, the fractured messages hitting home in a fractured mind. “What band is this?” Mike asked again. The three of us stared into the flames and repeated the cycle of smoking, talking, and laughing while the album found its perfect environment in the dead of night. An image pervaded my mind, that of a smile in the darkness, a smile imbued with ineffable meaning, to which I smiled back in perfect understanding.
“Open the Floodgates”
Months later, on the morning of December 1st, I awoke with something of a pit in my stomach, more akin to butterflies than gnawing anxiety. That evening I would be seeing The Smile with a couple friends, and though I had grown to adore ALFAA, the reason for my childlike excitement was the seemingly once in a lifetime opportunity to see Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood in a small venue, two members of a band I had been listening to since elementary school who were accustomed to playing arenas and festivals. But I had made a fatal mistake; I forgot the show was at the Riviera Theatre, or, as the locals in Chicago call it, the Riv.
Upon arrival we lined up around the building and trickled in, grabbing merch and beer before walking into the main stage area. It was then that I was reminded of the abomination that is the Riviera Theatre. A propensity for overselling tickets invariably leads to overcrowding, so we were forced to sidle and fight our way as close to the stage as possible. We made it within thirty feet of the stage, flanked on all sides, yet we still could not see the stage. I am not a short man, but the stage is virtually invisible for the GA crowd. This is because the Riv was designed for a seated audience, but tearing the seats out afforded them the ability to oversell the place twice over in complete and utter disregard for the patrons who would not be able to see the acts they paid to see. After listening to, rather than watching, the first few songs, catching glimpses of Yorke’s strained expressions and Greenwood’s hair helmet oscillating over a keyboard (Skinner may or may not have been present), we retreated to the back bar where we still couldn’t see but at least had access to beer and bathrooms. The attendees continued to talk throughout the entire performance, something apparently endemic to the Riv, my hypothesis being that since no one can actually see the show, they may as well act as if they were at a bar with an exorbitant cover charge and a decent DJ.
The Riviera Theatre in Chicago is an abomination that needs to raise the stage or reintroduce seating to the main floor. The proprietors need to stop pissing on their patrons by overselling shows that cannot be seen.
“Waving a White Flag”
After resigning ourselves to beers in the back, my anger began to fester. Instead of seeing childhood heroes for the first time, I saw the backs of heads, droves of people chatting incessantly, and a lot lizard moonlighting as a respectable whore make her way unsuccessfully around the bar. The people in our immediate proximity smelled as if they were on a crusade against bathing. The show was ruined, and I spent the remainder of it sulking and sipping until they walked off the stage. In the interim before the encore I ordered my last beer and petulantly wished the show to be over with, but then the encore actually began and reset my entire mood. The three walked back onto the stage (apparently) and without a word to the audience began playing “Open the Floodgates,” my favorite song. My indignation melted away with each swelling note. I conceptualized the ceaseless chatter as a new layer added low in the mix, and I was transported back to the campfire, enveloped in a cathartic callback. Still unable to see anything, I closed my eyes and listened, ignoring all the detracting elements of the experience, and, like a half-drunk headcase, smiled in the darkness.