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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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    Honorable Mentions:

    mazie – “all i ever wanted (was you)”

    This glittery psych-pop track from mazie has an air of playfulness that’s deftly balanced by the weariness and observation of an easygoing troubadour. It’s a breezy, easy listen until the lyrics are interrogated, which is a sleight of hand skill that mazie has seemed to perfect in her music. “I’m a sucker for a narcissist, that’s why I love myself,” she says by way of introduction, as if it should be the most obvious thing in the world. “You hate yourself ’cause you hate your mom/ And your mom hates me and I hate your mom,” she explains in the second verse, circling the point like a shark eyeing its prey. — Mary Siroky

    Sorry – “There’s So Many People That Want To Be Loved”

    The slow build of the latest track from London group Sorry required some restraint on the part of the band, and it’s a payoff worth waiting for as the listener. Band member Asha Lorenz describes it as a “sad-funny love song,” and the self-aware gloom in the verses, familiar but slightly different with each iteration, proves that very point. “Yeah, I know you’re not mine/ There’s so many people that just want to be loved/ But you’re the only pair of hands I can think of.” Is it still love, even if we’re just settling for it? — M.S.

    Sub Urban – “UH OH! (feat. BENEE)”

    Sub Urban has enlisted BENEE for this new spooky alt-pop track. “UH OH!” is a campy horror film packed into two minutes and change, anchored by gothic piano and an eerie, childlike hook. BENEE’s verse sees the New Zealander in a Billie Eilish-type lane, and the accompanying music video is worth the watch. 1950s nuclear family scenes are filtered through the lens of ’90s music videos, and if this all sounds like a lot, you’d be right. And it all works. — M.S.

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    Ethel Cain – “American Teenager”

    After Ethel Cain’s gripping Inbred EP last year, the multi-genre artist is gearing up to make her biggest statement yet. Her debut LP Preacher’s Daughter (out May 12th) will follow the artist dissecting the dynamics of a “traditional” American family, and her latest single “American Teenager” is the album’s anthemic thesis statement.

    “American Teenager” is a bit more straightforward than the songs on her previous efforts, but the results are even more satisfying: throughout the song, Cain shows off not just her impressive vocals and inspired production choices, but her inimitable strengths as a lyricist. “Jesus, if you’re listening, let me handle my liquor,” she croons, before adding “…and Jesus, if you’re there, why do I feel alone in this room with you?” The track details the fractured relationship between religion, the American Dream, and feeling like an outsider. Ethel Cain has earned a great deal of praise in the last few years, and rightfully so — “American Dream” proves that this lane is entirely hers, and she has a hell of a lot to say. — Paolo Ragusa

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