The Smile – Wall of Eyes (2024) Album Review

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SleepyJack Rating

The Smile’s Wall of Eyes is set for a January 26th, 2024 release, even though some fans may have already downloaded the album after a January 19th digital leak. Wall of Eyes (WOE) is familiar, yet fresh; mature and nuanced, yet modern and contemporary; confident and emotionally wrenching, yet self aware and doubtful. But, perhaps most importantly, WOE is much more than a dive into nostalgia or a relic of “once-relevant” musicians–a lesser Radiohead album, if you will. Rather, this record very much stands on its own merits, belongs in the present, and is a true imprint of elite musicians at the top of their game, breathing new life into their own legacies.  

Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood are no strangers to album releases (and album leaks) and the pressure of anxious fans and critics. As two of five members of Radiohead, the duo have been making massively anticipated albums for decades. In fact, the world was (im)patiently waiting for the 10th Radiohead album to drop when The Smile quietly formed in 2020, released their first LP, and began touring the world. The Smile, who are the famous Radiohead duo and skilled veteran Jazz drummer, Tom Skinner, released A Light for Attracting Attention (ALFAA) in 2022 to largely positive reception from fans and critics. Once again, Thom and Jonny (with a lot of help from the Tom without an “H”) met almost impossible artistic expectations.

In fact, many thought ALFAA was Yorke and Greenwood’s best creative project outside of Radiohead. Yet some fans were left a little underwhelmed because some of the songs sounded a little too much like “Diet Radiohead”–a less-dynamic, more stripped down version of what fans expected. In fact, some of the songs didn’t only sound like Radiohead, they were once actually supposed to be on the “next” Radiohead album. “Skirting on the Surface” and “Open the Floodgates,” for example, were fan-favorites to be on each “next” Radiohead album since back in 2004. Consequently, The Smile may have felt like a second place prize to some fans. 

But where ALFAA may have been too Radiohead-adjacent for some, WOE ventures deeper into its own psyche, bearing its own unique fruits. The result is gorgeous and exciting, an album begging for repeat listens. The lack of fetal Radiohead sketches is not the only glaring difference between the two albums. Longtime Yorke collaborator, Nigel Godrich, is notably absent on this record. Often thought of as an honorary member of Radiohead, Godrich has produced most of their albums and has worked on most of Yorke’s side projects as a producer and instrumentalist. Instead, Sam Petts-Davies produced this record. 

Sam Petts-Davies might be new to some; he is not as well-known of a Yorke collaborator as Godrich, surely; But, he did mix two live tracks from The Smile’s first album and produced the music for Suspiria and several tracks off of Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool. Maybe it isn’t a coincidence, then, that WOE is filled with more string arrangements, haunting piano chords, and ethereal vocal arrangements than its predecessor. Much of ALFAA’s plucky post-punk appeal, an apparent siren call to the good ol’ days for some fans, is replaced on WOE with songs that sound more like “True Love Waits” and “Spectre,” two songs Petts-Davies produced.

And perhaps because of these slow-burning compositions, fewer plucky guitar riffs or easily repeatable choruses, WOE might be relatively less-accessible. Some fans on Reddit and other music boards have already expressed concern over this change of pace. But these tracks are so beautifully crafted and executed that even a doubtful listener is sure to come around after a few listens.

Case in point: “Bending Hectic,” “Friend of a Friend,” and “Wall of Eyes,” the three official singles off WOE, are not necessarily the obvious picks for broad audience reception. Each one is a beautiful but slow-burning mound of molasses that occasionally sparks and sizzles. In fact, if The Smile’s goal is to sell as many records as possible, they might have chosen “Read the Room ” or “Under Our Pillow,” two of the new tracks that leaked, as the new singles. These two tracks sound like they could be on the first album, with plucky riffs and jazz punk ambitions. And maybe this is why they weren’t chosen. As catchy and sharp as they are, the other 6/8ths of the album sounds more like they exist for their own reasons and not, at least in part, at the behest of the audience. But, no, this is a band confident in their new direction.

“Teleharmonic,” the second track off WOE, is an absolutely gorgeous example of a band that is comfortable with themselves. Like much of Thom Yorke’s music, I have to give the first few listens my absolute full attention–it’s like my mind has never fully encountered these patterns before. But then with each successive listen, the song opens up, begins to make more sense, and finally let’s me in on its secrets. “Teleharmonic” even sounds like it could have been conceived for a Yorke solo record from the Anima era. But the track slowly evolves into a full band effort through Greenwood and Skinner’s percussion and string arrangements, reminding all of us that this is not simply another Yorke/Godrich release.

“You Know Me!” closes WOE with weepy, resonant piano chords and disparate, calculated percussion. Yorke’s voice sails in a comfortably high register that never overshadows the creaking progression of synths and eventually strings. The production on this track stands out, too, in similar ways as previous Petts-Davies/Yorke collaborations, especially those on Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool: each instrument is given space to breathe, while still showcasing the absolutely gut-wrenching emotion in Yorke’s vocals.

WOE is so much more than a side project or creative distraction, and it certainly doesn’t root itself firmly in the past. This sophomore effort is more mature, patient, confident, and seems to always pay attention to the right details. I won’t be surprised if WOE sells fewer copies than its predecessor, but it will likely become a fan and critic favorite. But, perhaps more importantly, WOE reveals that The Smile is full of creative life, a stream of fresh water refusing to stagnate, a collection of sounds very much rooted in the present moment.