TV on the Radio has never had a problem conjuring up intense emotion, they just can’t always control it. The trip-rocking band from Brooklyn’s intense style of trance-like wave rock sent thousands of listeners on dark musical journeys to the depths of Desperate Youths, Bloodthirsty Babes and the farthest reaches on a Return to Cookie Mountain, but one couldn’t always bring the musical trip to a satisfactory conclusion. Considered masterpieces by the majority of the music world, both works still struggled to maintain a coherent sense of direction and purpose throughout an entire album.
When you stack the front of an album with brilliant, throbbing numbers such as “Wrong Way” into “Staring at the Sun” and “Dreams,” (Desperate Youths) or “Wolf Like Me,” “I Was a Lover and “Playhouses” ( Cookie Mountain)—it’s next to impossible to maintain such a cataclysmic, climatic position for the next eight tracks. While TV On the Radio’s songs are orchestrated with sophistication and artfulness on their records, their craftsmanship should not be judged purely after listening to the stereo. TVOTR’s live performance cuts and mixes the variety of styles and moods into a swelling kaleidoscopic experience that never slows, never lets the listener truly stop until lead singer Tunde Adebimpe finally closes the night with a sweating, thunderous conclusion.
With their 2008 release, “Dear Science,” TVOTR has managed to harness some of their screaming aggression into a type of dark subdued fury that slowly unleashes itself across eleven tracks. Like their first two albums, the opener is a piece of absolutely addictive rock music, as “Halfway Home” finds Adebimpe’s intoning slowly over a pounding current of distorted fury that finally resolves into the funk-heavy, disco-infused political rant “Crying.” Adebimpe paints on broad lyrical canvasses that defy any attempt to analyze particular, individual stanzas but manage to convey the bleak thesis of his musical philosophy. On the heavy, infectious “Dancing Choose,” Adebimpe meth-raps his way through a never-ending list of discordant images that somehow hearkens back to Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”
After shaking your way through the single “Golden Age,” slow down for two seconds and savor the most beautiful track that TVOTR has ever penned. “Family Tree” is a sliding piano under-laid, violin dipping ballad, itself worth the price of the album. It could have easily been titled, “Love in a Time of Hatred”—a gorgeously dark track tells of a love threatened by a family and world that doesn’t seem to know the meaning of affection.“We’re laying in the shadow of your family tree/ your haunted heart and me/ brought down by an old idea whose time has come/ and in the shadow of the gallows of our family tree/ there’s a hundred hearts or three/ pumping blood to the roots of evil to keep it young.”
“Red Dress” is a funk-ified Rastafarian anti-war screed, while “Love Dog” is a soulful bass driven blast about the opposite of hate. The last few tracks do close with the typical TVOTR distorting breakdown in “Lover’s Day” but, unlike previous releases, the listener doesn’t get lost in the chaos before the final destruction.
There was a period in the winter of 2006 that I spent a few slow days at the office reading over the last few years of Adebimpe’s personal blog. As his band has risen in popularity and in the public eye, the posts have nearly stopped. But the philosophical acid-speak truths stand: this is a man frustrated with the condition of the world, the condition of our current president, and with an over-whelming 60’s-esque desire to have this reality become something more beautiful. There may be a “Golden Age coming around,” but for right now it’s a pretty dark place, and Dear Science is a lament for what could be.
It may have been written as a dirge, but this album is one of the most hopeful pieces of progressive musical workmanship dropped in 2008. It’s next to impossible to describe or classify TV on the Radio’s sound, but it’s inevitable that the final verdict on that sound will leave this Brooklyn crew in the very lonely category of bands marked by both musical innovation and excellence. This may be the best album of the year.
Nathan Martin is Patrol’s Washington, D.C. music editor.
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