The Smile: Wall of Eyes Album Review

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    Across the album, Greenwood’s haywire guitars and arrangements veer between Can’s warehouse expressionism and Robert Wyatt’s alien-abducted folk fusion, conspiring with the live production and convulsive rhythms to save his bandmate from his more ponderous impulses. Yorke’s ethereal vocal register has long been his calling card and his crutch, tested to dizzying effect on the verses of “Climbing Up the Walls” before taking root on The King of Limbs. These days, he is split between warring impulses to command a song or spritz it with ghostly vapor. But even his weaker spells enchant, and Wall of Eyes opens with two irresistible slow burners: the wintry bossa nova title track, where he murmurs about digital surveillance and sedation (“You will go behind a wall of eyes/Of your own device/Is that still you with the hollow eyes?”), and “Teleharmonic,” from the “All I Need” school of fraught narrators caught in whirlpool synths, clinging to love like a life preserver.

    By sequencing the two foggiest songs up front, the album lulls you into a trance. Then Greenwood’s guitar, coaxed from the sidelines, electrifies the nerve center on “Read the Room” and “Under Our Pillows,” an alt-rock suite of clanking-piston hooks and motorik finales. When the tension lifts with a music-box melody or swell of London Contemporary Orchestra strings, the songs have surprised us twice: first by forestalling expectations of beauty, then by providing it anyway.

    The second side’s tour-de-luxe falters only on “I Quit,” one of those Smile songs that perhaps suffers from Greenwood’s desire to release records “90 percent as good [that] come out twice as often.” Where the arresting closer “You Know Me!” evolves Yorke’s paranoid balladry, “I Quit” is the discount “Codex” or “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor”: intoxicating as ever but without the final revelation—the sense of dawn penetrating some murky underworld—that tilts those Radiohead songs into the sublime.

    After decades refining, refusing, and reformulating the Radiohead sound, Yorke and Greenwood seem emboldened to stop resisting—to loosen up and let their songwriting impulses absorb whatever happens to be on their stereo that day. Wall of Eyes gives center stage to jazz, kosmische, prog—aesthetic signposts and satellite genres usually kept in the more established band’s wings. The Smile, though stranger and wilder, more comfortably fit in the omnivorous art-rock tradition.

    Greenwood’s fusion of refinement and insurrection echoes that of his beloved pianist Glenn Gould, who once made a nice observation about the pioneering modernist composer Arnold Schoenberg: “Whenever one honestly defies a tradition, one becomes, in reality, the more responsible to it.” As Radiohead defied rock convention, so the Smile cannot help but defy Radiohead. Yet defiance, Gould suggests, is the lifeblood of tradition. To defy classicism or rock or a cherished old band may finally preserve their sanctity. The defied thing endures—and then, if we are lucky, defiance provokes it to react.

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