TV on the Radio: Dear Science(DGC/Interscope, 2008)
TV on the Radio showed up on the scene a few years ago with the startling soul/punk/industrial/doo wop Young Liars EP. Their second full length, the absurdly titled Return to Cookie Mountain, was a dense grower with multi-layered soundscapes; it eventually won out as my favorite album of 2006. With Dear Science, TVOTR have synthesized and put into practice all the knowledge gained from their prior experimentation. They have de-cluttered their mix, trading in some of the noise for an array of clean, polyphonic grooves and some more overt pop moves, even adding some great string arrangements to several songs. What results is a strong album in an evermore eclectic and satisfying fusion of styles that hardly anyone else dares to throw together: R&B, post-punk, hip-hop, indie, electronic, jazz, afro-funk, prog/art rock, and probably a load of other things I haven’t picked up on. They’ve spent the past few years sounding like absolutely no one else in rock, possibly because they sound like scattered fragments of everyone else, deconstructing everything from Radiohead to Usher to the Pixies. On this album they’re putting it all back together.
“Halfway Home,” the high energy album-opener, is also the track most in keeping with the expected TVOTR sound, if slightly more upbeat than usual. Syncopated drumming and heavily effected, chugging guitars create a drone background for some Beach Boys-styled “B-B-Ba-Ba-Boms,” over which lead vocalist Tunde Adebimpe croons with a voice that is not entirely unlike that of Nat King Cole.
Adebimpe is not the only vocal force, however, the band having been blessed with not one but two gifted vocalists and lyricists. Kyp Malone contrasts Adebimpe’s smoothness with a slightly more idiosyncratic, soulful vocal style. Check out his voice on “Golden Age,” the album’s celebratory “lead single” which sounds like it could have been unearthed from Michael Jackson’s long-lost collaboration with David Bowie and Brian Eno. The classic groove is clearly meant to get everyone on the dance floor, but the lyrics here have as much in common with the language of hymnody and the biblical psalms as they do with “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,”
Move your body
You’ve got all you need
And your arms in the air stir a sea of stars
And, oh, here it comes and it’s not so far
All light beings
Come on now make haste
Clap your hands
If you feel you’re in the right place
Thunder all surrounding
Feel it quake with the joy resounding
Palm to the palm you can feel it pounding
Never give it up you can feel it mounting
Oh it’s gonna drop gonna fill your cup
Oh it’s gonna drop gonna fill your cup
The age of miracles
The age of sound
Well there’s a golden age coming round, coming round, coming round
This simultaneous subversion and fusion of mainstream pop musical styles with spiritual (or in other cases political, poetic, and scientific) language to create curious and stunning lyrics recurs on many tracks. Production-wise, “Stork & Owl” sounds almost like something Timbaland could have brought to Justin Timberlake, but instead of the stereotypical lover man lyrics one expects from such a track, a close listening reveals more of a meditation on death and the challenges and chances of life, with lyrics like,
Death’s a door that love walks through
In and out, in and out
Back and forth, back and forth
Turn from the fear of the storms that might be
Oh, let it free, that caged on fire thing
Oh, hold its hands, it’ll feel like lightening
Oh, in your arms, safe from the storms.
A couple more favorite tracks I would be remiss not to comment on specifically:
- the absolutely vicious afro-funk groove of “Red Dress,” with its equally vicious and self-eviscerating lyrics which once again mix the biblical, the popular, the political, and the sociological.
- the souled-up In Rainbows-ish tracks “Love Dog” and “Shout Me Out,” which follow directly on its heels,
- album closer “Lover’s Day,” an absolutely ecstatic and occasionally explicit love song set to a fife-and-drum New Orleans march, complete with a multitude of both live and sampled woodwinds and horns.
Each song on the album is rock solid, fully formed and fully inhabiting its own sonic world. Quite a feat for an album of such diverse sounds. The heterogeneous sounds have made it easy for me to get caught up in repeated listens, as it’s hard to get bored with all the variation. And yet, despite the differences, the tracks seem to beg to be listened to one after another, as sequenced. They gain resonance by their juxtaposition. Taken as a whole, I feel the album partakes of a bit of that freshly canonical/instant classic feel most recently exemplified by In Rainbows.
Recommended for anyone who likes smart, adventurous funk/soul/rock music, and anyone who’s ever wanted to somehow listen to Kanye West and U2 at the exactly same time (am I the only one?)
By the way, you can listen to any or all of the tracks on this album for free just by clicking on the little triangle play buttons in the box at the top of this article. Streamed courtesy of the excellent lala.com music site.
I should also note that the only reason that this review is included in my best winter albums of 2008-2009 series is that I listened to it a whole lot this past winter.