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Song of the Week: The Smile Embrace Dramatic Balladry on “Free In the Knowledge”

mazie, Ethel Cain, and Nina Nesbitt also dropped essential tracks

the smile free in the knowledge
The Smile, photo by Alex Lake
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    Song of the Week breaks down and talks about the song we just can’t get out of our head each week. Find these songs and more on our Spotify Top Songs playlist. For our favorite new songs from emerging artists, check out our Spotify New Sounds playlist. This week, The Smile unleash a devastating, melancholy rumination on living with the consequences of the world around us. 


    It’s as if Thom Yorke decided about a decade ago to commit himself to releasing some of the most devastating music of his career — which is kind of like a Carolina Reaper deciding to be spicier, or the Mariana Trench deciding that it’s not quite deep enough. There’s “Dawn Chorus” from his 2019 solo record ANIMA, “Unmade” from the Suspiria soundtrack, and pretty much everything off of Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool. Yorke, three decades into his career, has proven to be no less melancholic, no less moving.

    “Free In the Knowledge” is his latest, extremely successful attempt at evoking a misty-eyed thousand-yard stare. Coming by way of The Smile, Yorke is backed by the most overqualified backing band in alternative music. Fellow Radioheader and Oscar-nominee Johnny Greenwood and Sons of Kemet drummer Tom Skinner round out the ironically-named trio, culminating in a sound that celebrates both the heyday of ’90s alt-rock and the jazzy, romantic, eclectic film scores of Yorke and Greenwood.

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    “Free in the knowledge that one day this will end/ Free in the knowledge everything is change,” Yorke croons to open the cynically optimistic track. Over acoustic guitar, ghostly piano, and swelling strings, Yorke makes a defeated call for understanding. It’s characteristically political — Yorke always has been — but instead of aiming fiery attacks at the establishment (à la “Electioneering” or “2+2=4”), he looks to those stuck in the middle, those forced to live with the consequences of corrupt or ineffective actors. “Turns out we’re in this together, both me and you.”

    The song is the fifth to be released under the moniker of The Smile and accompanied the formal announcement of the project’s first album, A Light For Attracting Attention. Placed within the context of the four other singles, each with their own style and tone, it’ll be interesting to see how A Light For Attracting Attention takes shape as a holistic statement; “You Will Never Work In Television Again” introduced the group as angry, rocking, Bends-ian protestors.

    Following tracks, like “The Smoke,” revealed the trio’s groovier side. Now with the dramatic balladry on display in “Free In the Knowledge,” it seems as if the British lads are ready to play chameleon, showcasing the many strengths of each of The Smile’s accomplished members. If the record can uphold the quality of the material released thus far, that’s just fine by us.

    — Jonah Krueger

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