Review Summary: A whimper…
Thom Yorke is old now. So is Jonny Greenwood. They were once part of a very famous and influential rock band, but their glory years are slipping behind them. The Smile is their geezer project – an outlet for their creative juices that will not tarnish the name “Radiohead” with middling old man shi
t. Wall of Eyes
is not yet that, despite straying uncomfortably near the edge, but I cannot shake my sense of unease I have felt over this record since its release in January. This weed of a feeling festered in me, before cracking through into my psyche once I revisited In Rainbows
, an album that breathes every second of its runtime despite likewise forgoing typical songwriting conventions. In comparison, Wall of Eyes
is a plank of wood, rigid and functional yet entirely dead.
Okay, this is the part of the review where I need to forgo reviewer omniscience and admit that I am incapable of viewing this album outside of Radiohead’s colossal shadow. Is that unfair? Maybe, but that’s what happens once an artist begins showing the gracelessness of aging and their achievements begin to fade into history. Not to say that the shadow does not affect the artist either, but that it certainly should not be considered unfair that it stands over the artist. Radiohead is what Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood did with their lives, and they can only add to that legacy, not rewrite it. And, to their credit, they seem to understand this. Wall of Eyes
is a paranoid journey through delicate soundscapes that has all the little details to keep Radiohead fans occupied for the next two/three/ten years. It’s lush and thoughtful and, occasionally, brilliant. So what is nagging at me?
My unfortunate impression is that The Smile’s identity is almost… tacky? Music crafted specifically to demand multiple listens risks coming off as pretentious and arrogant, but Radiohead always earned their experimentation, and there isn’t anything particularly egregious about how The Smile indulge themselves here – except that I do not believe they are doing it for themselves. Instead, my impression of Wall of Eyes
is that it is a musical judo move, a slight of hand constructed from all the conventions of experimental rock music to distract a rabid fanbase for a few more years. Every detail is placed specifically to enrich the music, yet the final result left me bloated and gassy: Radioheadcore delivered in a McDonalds’ wrapper.
As such it is befitting that The Smile chose paranoia as the thematic backdrop for Wall of Eyes
. What better mood to convince the masses that something is there than by pursuing the wrought distortions of aggrandised, aggravated nothingness? From the meandering slog of the t/t to the final moments of “You Know Me!”, the amount of empty space here is deeply disappointing, instead of disconcerting. Yorke’s lyricism only furthers this complaint. Vague conceptual exploration can unlock depths of creativity within the listener, but dammit if some more specific ideas would help me enjoy Wall of Eyes
more. Empty ideas sold as empty ideas do not become full by their self-awareness alone, a theme best exemplified by the hackneyed conclusion to “Under Our Pillows”, an alarmingly predictable crescendo of white noise that cuts into equally predictable silence. Sure, dissecting the melange of sounds crammed into the ever-loveable wall-of-noise will keep you occupied, but are you entertained or being had? Is the product, even if dense and complex and thoughtful, actually any of these qualities or just a mirage to keep you trodding through the desert? It is difficult not to interpret every decision as being made deliberately and obviously in pursuit of the aesthetics of experimentation, resulting in an album that is really just Radiohead from a vending machine.
Still, even if Wall of Eyes
is not hydrating, there is some fun to be had. “Teleharmonic” supersedes the plodding opener and gracefully flies by (the only song here that is both enjoyable and quick by my measure), “Read the Room,” *ahem*, “borrows” a Blonde Redhead riff to positive results, and “Bending Heretic” is genuinely essential, building a far more memorable crescendo from the pieces of “Under Our Pillows.” Finally, Tom Skinner is a spectacular drummer, and what stunning moments hide amongst these amblings are carried by his subtle, immutable presence. Unfortunately, Wall of Eyes
is foremost an album for the Radiohead fan who has memorized every moment of their discography. The fun only really begins around spin 6 or 7, as the music is simply too dense to dissect immediately, yet this dissection only exposes a moldy foundation of late-career aimlessness trapped within stylistic pinnings bereft of the inspiration or vigor to destabilize, redefine and create. Sure, Pitchfork, Fantano and Radiohead fans like it, it has all the necessary elements to please them, yet Wall of Eyes
lacks those seeds of inspiration and artistic differentiation to truly stand on its own. Is it a distraction or the end times? Either way, a disappointment.