Review Summary: “I quit, my head is lit” - Thom Yorke, 2024
Looking back at my review for The Smile’s debut record, 2022’s A Light for Attracting Attention
, I can easily recognize it’s far from my strongest writing. At the time I was obsessed with A Moon Shaped Pool
(maybe, still am?) and the fact that a new, if related, band had come out with a record bearing a more than passing resemblance to that album’s sound and aesthetic immediately set me up to wax poetic in a gushing release-day writeup. While I don’t necessarily regret this - unless some billionaire happens to read this and take pity on me, Sputnikmusic.com staff writer is an unpaid position, and spilling hundreds of words while sunning yourself in the warm glow of some site hype is one of the gig’s great pleasures - it’s now evident to me that A Light for Attracting Attention
doesn’t live up to my initial assessment. If you asked me now (don’t have to, I’m telling you anyway!), I’d say it’s a borderline excellent record with a lot of great songs, but simultaneously both uncomfortably indebted to Radiohead’s last album and uncomfortable in trying to incorporate a bunch of disparate styles at the margins which fail to mesh.
In my defense, writing about The Smile might always be a hard task. Given this project’s indelible connection to the most critically-revered act of the last thirty years (hint hint, rhymes with Jay Tio Said), it’s near-impossible to contemplate on their own terms without drawing in overwrought comparisons to the more famous band’s work. But, as The Smile’s sophomore effort, coming less than two years after the debut, Wall of Eyes
seem to signify that this new group is here to stay, becoming a semi-permanent fixture of the indie/alt rock world rather than a brief side project to be forgotten as the years roll on. As such, it comes along with some implicit baggage - the group needs to differentiate themselves to a greater degree. Turns out that Wall of Eyes
does take a big step in this direction, but doesn’t go all the way. Allow me to explain…
I can go no further without noting that this is a pretty strange album. On a cursory listen, it sounds “good” - meaning it’s well-produced and there’s a lot of musical beauty evident from moment to moment. But, its songs are mostly formless and drifting in a seemingly intentional but highly unusual way - there’s a certain kinship here to Pile’s most recent LP, All Fiction
, which shares a similarly-convoluted aversion to any sense of easily-comprehensible song structure. In both cases, these stylistic choices make my level of confidence in any early assessment of quality rather suspect - All Fiction
, it should be noted, has pulled me in enough to revisit regularly since its release, but I frankly still don’t quite know what to make of it, about a year later.
Sonically, I’d posit that Wall of Eyes
represents a bridge between Radiohead’s later-era works/The Smile’s debut and the recent wave of avant-garde-tinged acts headlining the UK’s rock output these days (Black Midi, etc.). If the last part of that sentence elicited groans, I’m mostly with you, but for what it’s worth, this album is more palatable to me than most of the offerings from that scene. It’s also important to note that the eight songs here feel notably more coherent as an entity than the uneasy collection which was The Smile’s first full-length, even if I’m far from convinced that the overall level of quality or consistency ultimately measures up. This whole tracklist is built around undulating songs powered by a pervasive feeling of paranoia and anchored by Thom Yorke’s vocals - his voice is so distinctive that as long as he’s the voice of The Smile, there’s no chance of escaping Radiohead comparisons.
Despite my downer comment about uneven quality in the last paragraph, there are certainly highlights to be found here. The opener and title track helps to unveil this record’s vibe, its weird folk-meets-art pop sound beckoning us eerily, while “Read the Room” helps secure the first half of the album with its intricate rhythms, which eventually break into a full-on strut. In the record’s later stages, the closing trio is quite strong - “I Quit” offers nice grooves and an instantly quotable opening line (referenced in the review’s summary), “Bending Hectic” might be The Smile’s best tune yet (more on that later), and closer “You Know Me!” delivers a slow and semi-orchestral finale which works nicely.
About “Bending Hectic” - it’s the longest track on either of The Smile’s records so far, and delivers upon that grandiosity. Most of the song takes a beautiful and very soft approach - there’s a wonderful use of space within the music which achieves near-ambient delivery, and when, in the last three minutes or so, things twist around into a quite crunching final stretch, everything comes together very tastefully.
Not all on Wall of Eyes
“comes together very tastefully”, though. Tempos rarely change here from the stagnant, and while I’m not usually one to complain about that sort of thing, there are moments which become a bit of a slog. In terms of dynamics, there are plenty of shifts from soft to loud and back (sometimes dramatically), but they don’t often follow a comprehensible sense of progression (the aforementioned “Bending Hectic” is notable for its success in this record). “Under Our Pillows” is the most glaring example of this phenomenon - its over six minute runtime proves rather monotonous to begin with, and the final turn to an extended outro which becomes more and more loud and abrasive feels utterly pointless. It’s grim to note I could make at least minor gripes about most of the songs here as well, as this album feels like a product ultimately a bit less than the sum of its (very worthy) parts. But, there’s still an inherent likable-ness to the bleak and somewhat sinister prettiness of Wall of Eyes
. Warts and all, The Smile’s second go-round shows that they have things to say, and an interesting point of view. The Radiohead name-drops may never end, but things do feel different now. If A Light for Attracting Attention
felt like a perhaps unnecessary but strong redux of a Radiohead album (A Moon Shaped Pool
, specifically), then Wall of Eyes
feels like an album Radiohead never made here on Earth, even if they could’ve conceivably done so in an alternate dimension. That’s progress.