Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood and Tom Skinner - Photography by Alex Lake

The Smile: Radiohead reinvented or its shadow?

Image credit: Alex Lake

Radiohead’s Creep has been an enduring hit since its release as a single in 1993. The soft, steady drums, accompanied by the drones of a dissatisfied man, speak to all the lost, lonely 20-somethings across Radiohead’s Oxford and beyond. As Britpop peaked, indie bands like Radiohead simmered under the radar, attracting a more niche group of fans who have proved to be loyal across the over 30-year span of the band. The group has remained steadfastly popular, appearing multiple times in the 2023 Rolling Stones’ The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. The age and popularity of the band begs the question: what more is there to be done?

Jonny Greenwood has credited COVID boredom with the development of the set of music that later resulted in The Smile. The Smile is a typical supergroup; an outlet for the big stars to express a slightly deviated sound while receiving the same excitement and support. Radiohead’s signature is firmly printed on The Smile’s discography, there is no mistaking the same haunting strings echoing through Bending Hectic as in How to Disappear Completely (Kid A). Bending Hectic (part of The Smile’s recent album Wall Of Eyes) is a masterful introspective journey led by Thom Yorke. Yorke narrates as the orchestra swells behind him, the drums seemingly sporadically entertaining throughout the song. Despite the inescapable overlap of The Smile and Radiohead, a more playful approach has been adopted- possibly the pressure of living up to Radiohead’s name has finally been released. A new sound has been borne simply out of Greenwood, Yorke, and Skinner’s desire to create and explore. The final chaos in Bending Hectic seems almost like a shedding of that image and expectation, the minimal media coverage before release also reflects this.

It would be unfair to claim that Radiohead’s brand has particularly limited them; their experimental sound has resulted in unparalleled creative freedom with no two albums following a particularly linear path. A Light for Attracting Attentioninvokes Radiohead’s early playful experimentation, more like Amnesiac than the recent A Moon Shaped Pool. 

Perhaps there is little to separate the two, it can hardly be argued that The Smile represents a grand reinvention, but there is a certain excitement surrounding a rebrand or change of direction for musicians as celebrated as Yorke and Greenwood. They have already cultivated a strong legacy with Radiohead, so The Smile exists simply for the joy of the music. The band emerged during Covid, so much of the project is about working within the parameters afforded to them. As Greenwood puts it, the essence of the band is “the whole dynamic of three people and the limits that you have… and trying to enjoy that and work within them.” 

No particularly new ground has been covered with The Smile. There are no surprises on the two albums that have been released so far, but what do Yorke and Greenwood need to prove? Radiohead needs no reinvention- they have firmly established themselves and continue to produce and create while maintaining a good relationship (very rare for 90s music idols!). The addition of Tom Skinner is a marriage that complements the dynamic perfectly.

If The Smile is little more than more music for the rest of us, who is really complaining?

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