TV On The Radio Dear Science

[Interscope; 2008]

Styles: 21st century soul
Others: David Byrne, Fela Kuti, Brian Eno, Al Green, Prince

In a recent interview with Tiny Mix Tapes, TV On The Radio’s David Sitek said of Dear Science, “I think people make the mistake that they hear the beats or the clarity of the music and think that it’s totally optimistic. It is in parts, but it still has a healthy dose of doubt.” On the heels of the sinisterly brilliant Return to Cookie Mountain, it’s easy to read this new set of songs as upbeat, as TVOTR follows (or pushes) the reigning musical zeitgeist toward the deepest reaches of the Byrne/Eno-mapped forest, where art rock runs into the full spectrum of musical traditions, running into genres less abstruse and mechanical than the post-punk orthodoxy can often seem. But the lyrics across Dear Science, the band’s best yet, show how TVOTR don't necessarily believe that things are looking brighter. As Tunde Adebimpe sings on “DLZ,” "This is beginning to feel like the dawn of a loser forever." It’s always silly to saddle one, two, or a handful of individual artists in any medium with the “era-defining” tag on the zeitgeist front -- not least because our dark, weird decade continues to spin too chaotically to define anything with much certainty -- but if any group of musicians offer up a more perfect union of tunes to time and place, this is the one. And this is the album for 2008, even if it isn’t anointed the Album Of The Year or even if its shot for the title isn't quite as strong as Cookie Mountain's in 2006.

While TVOTR’s verse has never read like Bob Dylan or Patti Smith, the creeping lyrical paranoia, dread, and anger that reached an apex atop Cookie Mountain finds release in the newly rich wording of Dear Science. Listeners are urged to "Laugh in the face of death under masthead/ Hold your breath through late-breaking disasters/ Next to news of the trite" in “Crying,” as the loose, stuttering beat suggests that maybe you should be dancing while you laugh. They don’t sound like Shakespeare on paper, but bound up with the band’s exquisite sense of melody, the lyrics sit righteously within the tradition of popular musics that echo and amplify populist sentiment, from Dylan to Kuti to Marley to, hey, why not, Prince. However raw they may be feeling on other fronts, the people generally still want to get down, and Dear Science is a salve for both sensations.

It comes as no surprise, then, that the most prominent instruments on this album are the voices of Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone, which is absolutely appropriate given their phenomenal power, even as this move gives the proceedings a hefty shove towards the realm of the commercial pop mix (Do instrumentation-dominating vocals give rise to major pop appeal, or vice versa?). “Crying,” in particular, sees Malone really stretching out his trademark falsetto in the chorus, almost like My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, working in tandem with the bright guitar line and unfolding horns to make the song Ebola-infectious just by sounding so damn glad to be using his voice like that. Coming out of the slack-or-snarly rock tradition, it’s easy for ears inured to years of indie mumbling to forget how much pleasure can be taken in the pure, clear tones of the human voice, in a singer himself taking pleasure from giving his instrument a serious workout. And it’s not a bad thing if this makes TVOTR more accessible: more people should listen to this band. Vast audiences should be singing along to and text-message-voting for melodies this sticky, lyrics this knotty, and symbolism this dense. Let’s hear Interscope push these guys to radio over their stable of Britneys, now that the label’s got some singers on their hands who can really belt.

And while Adebimpe’s and Malone’s vocal stylings have always been the clearest testament to TVOTR’s devotion to soul music, their instrumental support on Dear Science climbs head-first into the many lush branches of the tree Sam Cooke planted. “Red Dress,” a solid contender for best song, shows that the band’s time with the horns of Brooklyn’s mighty Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra has rubbed off in the best way. The palm-muted funk of “Golden Age” peels pages out of the Prince playbook before an onrush of Eno-style synthesizer-cum-gospel-choir washes over the song. But the rhythm section is naturally the bedrock of these grooves, and the marriage of human percussion to electronic drum programming seems effortless. Given the steering wheel as well as the gas pedal, Jaleel Bunton and Gerard Smith have finally completed TVOTR’s transition from a two-person studio project into a vigorous, full-bodied live organism. The laid-back wallop of “DLZ” packs maybe the most visceral low-end punch, hitting all the harder for the judicious rests where Bunton and Smith strategically hang back.

On the few occasions Dear Science fails to scale the heights of Cookie Mountain, it’s generally because the band sounds like they’re drawing from the wrong end of the Byrne and Eno catalogues: The dippy late-period man-with-a-Mac stuff that fails to draw in anyone but the devotees, made by musicians sitting comfortably sipping tea and looking at expensive photo books. “Stork and Owl” is the biggest dud in this manner, precisely because it sounds so damn mannered, and “Family Tree” starts out on the same path before the poignant lyrics step up to the plate and the late-entry rhythm section brings the composition home. A string section is an awfully tough weapon to deploy in the context of this kind of a band, no matter how many classic Isaac Hayes (R.I.P.) psych soul numbers you digest in preparation. While it’s tough to tell whether the strings in these songs sprang from man or machine, they’re nonetheless used as though they came in a can, dropped onto a ProTools grid like faux-finish gloss.

In the same September 2008 interview, Sitek told TMT that he's been “obsessing about crystal clear sounds” and pointed out that Cookie Mountain was about ambience, while Dear Science is about percussion. And, indeed, the beats work great -- but there’s a difference between cleaning the grime off a sweet piece of fruit and washing it with antiseptic soap. Namely, the latter doesn’t taste too good. The brilliant attention to ambient texture and timbre that set TVOTR immediately apart from Young Liars onward is still occasionally at play (most recognizably on “Halfway Home” and “DLZ.”), but it seems like this new germaphobic production style might've washed away the intricate balance found on Cookie Mountain. Nonetheless, this omnivorous, outrageously talented group has thus far given us every reason to think that the next twist will be just as inventive and fresh. They seem to work best in epic leaps from one stylistic lily pad to the next, and Dear Science is all the more satisfying for providing a sense that the next leap will be just as rewarding. But who can worry about that right now? Do like the man says, and go put your red dress on.

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