I’ve written before about how impossible it is to have any objectivity about the band that got you through high school. That band for me was Radiohead – OK Computer came out the year I turned 13, which more or less sealed things – and blessedly, they have continued to hold an active and meaningful presence throughout my adult life.
That presence has evolved, of course. In my teenage years it bordered on obsession, with too much of my free time spent chasing bootleg fragments of new songs over 56k dial-up speeds. In my twenties, Radiohead’s (and Thom Yorke’s solo) tours stood at the top of my concert pyramid, setting the example against which I judged all other shows, and requiring me to spend whatever was necessary when they’d pass through town.
As I approach the end of my thirties, Radiohead may be winding down too. They’ve released just one album in the last 10 years, 2016’s elegant A Moon Shaped Pool, and they’ve shown no urgency to regroup since. But they have continued to be musically active individually, particularly Yorke and Jonny Greenwood, who is at the height of his demand as a film composer. And I can’t say it doesn’t still hold magic for me when I hear Greenwood’s orchestrations in Phantom Thread or The Power of the Dog – part of me can’t help but feel validated that my childhood obsession’s contemporary work is being venerated as Great Art a quarter-century later.
But who knows where Radiohead might be today without COVID-19? For a financially comfortable group with geographically scattered families, the pandemic could have quashed any conversations about revving the band back up. In one of 2020’s countless surreal cultural moments, Yorke debuted a new song called “Plasticine Figures” on Jimmy Fallon the only way he could – alone, from home, his Zoom camera stubbornly fixed on his unkempt and dimly-lit visage. Maybe in some other reality, “Figures” would have been in the process of getting a full-band arrangement for a future LP and world tour. As it stands, this performance remains a one-off, a haunting curiosity from an unthinkably dark timeline where something so bleak would air on The Tonight Show.
Fortunately, that’s not where the story ends. While Radiohead remains dormant, we improbably now have The Smile: Thom and Jonny, on both record and stage, accompanied by drummer Tom Skinner. The Smile’s 2022 debut album, A Light for Attracting Attention, is like Radiohead with slightly lower stakes and an increased penchant for unusual time signatures. If Radiohead was too heavy and complex an engine to restart mid-lockdown, Yorke and Greenwood figured a new, more agile vehicle for collaboration would suffice.
A Light for Attracting Attention is very good, but again, it’s difficult for me to have perspective. Jonny’s scores and the other band members’ various solo records feel separate enough from Radiohead that I can more or less judge them on their merits. But watching Jonny shred stage left while Thom flails and yelps – this sure feels an awful lot like the main act, all apologies to Colin, Ed, and Phil.
The Smile’s best song to date is “Bending Hectic,” which was composed on tour and quickly became a live highlight. It’s an incredible blend of Jonny’s avant-garde, cinematic guitar composition technique, the restrained playfulness with tempo that Thom has shown in recent work like “Dawn Chorus,” and an almost shockingly direct power chord-driven chorus that sounds like it could date from The Bends. It’s likely to appear on a second The Smile LP, though I can’t help but wish this one could get the full Radiohead treatment.
But “Bending Hectic” is a song for a future year, and right now I want to focus on 2022. That brings us to The Smile’s second-best song to date, “You Will Never Work in Television Again.”
Before “Television” we’d heard little from Thom since his terrifying Fallon broadcast from the edge of the apocalypse (and the less said about “Creep [Very 2021 Rmx],” the better). So The Smile’s lead single was not only surprising, but an enormous relief – a cathartic burst of post-punk energy in 5/4 time, with Yorke ripping into unnamed targets in full “Bodysnatchers” mode.
While most obviously referencing Silvio Berlusconi, the rage behind “Television” could apply equally to any of the grotesque elites who have sat atop global politics and entertainment, from Weinstein to Trump. “Take your dirty hands off my love, heaven knows where else you’ve been,” Yorke sneers as the track careens to a halt in a tidy 2:48. Yorke’s lyrics have always been best when they’re as funny as they are scathing.
Radiohead doesn’t look like I ever imagined it would heading into 2023. Neither does my life, or most people’s lives, or the world. But we’re lucky to live at the same time as these artists, and I’m grateful that since “Plasticine Figures” Thom Yorke has indeed worked in television again.