Wall of Eyes by The Smile album review by Leslie Ken Chu for Northern Transmissions


Wall of Eyes

The Smile

Less than two years after releasing their debut album A Light for Attracting Attention, the Smile—Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and Johnny Greenwood, as well as drummer Tom Skinner (Sons of Kemet, Floating Points, Kano—return with the much more spacious Wall of Eyes. Unlike A Light for Attracting Attention, as well as most of Yorke’s work, Wall of Eyes was produced by Sam Petts-Davies rather than Nigel Godrich. But the results are equally robust and absorbing.

A Light for Attracting Attention drew so much from Radiohead’s ramshackle rock sensibilities that many hailed it as the best Radiohead side project, high praise considering that every member of the living alt-rock legends has at least one side project. But if A Light for Attracting Attention flat out rocked, for the most part, Wall of Eyes moves with restrained energy.

Wall of Eyes opens in much more understated fashion than its predecessor, setting the album’s lighter tone. Most of the title track features a haunted samba rhythm. If you remove Yorke’s ephemeral falsetto and the dabs of percussion that bubbles to the surface of “Teleharmonic,” the song would become a glowing ambient exercise.

There are bold guitars riffs and bursts of guitar noise strewn throughout Wall of Eyes for sure, but sometimes, it takes a while for the Smile to get there. The melody on “Bending Hectic” floats for five-and-a-half minutes before coming to a full-stop against a wall of explosive, discordant guitar noise.

On Wall of Eyes, the Smile continue to explore familiar themes. Anxiety about modern life persists as the trio holds up a magnifying glass to the selfish, greedy liars who occupy every rung of the social ladder. The Smile inspect the lies we tell to get ahead of others and the lies we tell to hold others down. The album’s narrators include themselves among the victims as well as the complicit. “Down a peg or two we all go,” the title track opens. Then, in the second verse, he sings, “Let us raise our glasses / To what we don’t deserve / Or what we’re not worthy of.”

Even Wall of Eyes’ calmest moments coast on an unsettling undercurrent. The album fixates on endings, sometimes with a sense of injustice. “Payback, payback / Where are you taking me?” the narrator asks on “Teleharmonic” before singing of being “pinned up, pinned up / By hammer and nail.”

Embedded in Wall of Eyes is the idea that ignorance is bliss. Sometimes, this requires performing mental gymnastics to distort truth and reality. “That’s your opinion / That’s how the story goes / A magic rain, a magic rainbow / So big it bends the light,” the narrator sings on “Read the Room.” This album standout starts out rigid, but it’s easy to imagine it as clobbering sludge-rock before it breaks free into a roaming jam reminiscent of Sonic Youth’s Murray Street.

“Friend of a Friend” suggests you can be happy if you compromise yourself. “I can go anywhere that I want / I just gotta turn myself inside out and back to front / With cut out shapes and worn-out spaces /Add some sparkles to create the right effect,” the narrator sings over a buoyant piano line and bobbing basslines, aware that he’s an imposter. “They’re all smiling, so I guess I’ll stay / At least till the disappointed have eaten themselves away,” he continues to bargain with himself.

Sometimes, but not often, Wall of Eyes’ narrators display some agency. On the stuttering, off-kilter “Under Your Pillow,” the narrator resists the idea that “Nowadays, everyone’s for sharing.” “Don’t let them take me,” he pleads. Soon afterwards, the song descends into lengthy low-rumbling drone with dreamlike liminality; it’s as if the narrator gets dragged off and slips into oblivion from which there’s no hope of return. Even on “Read the Room,” Yorke appears to switch point of views. “Come on out of your head, man / Don’t lose your head, man,” one speaker implores another.

With indiscriminate criticism of both society’s and the individual’s ills—and their potential to break free of the shackles of selfish desire—the Smile deliver another measured, thoughtful album with clear minds and clear intent.

Pre-order Wall of Eyes by The Smile HERE


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