Avant-pop royalty, incapable of making the same album twice, congenitally chilly, impossibly cool, and they’ve just dropped their Station to Station. Just like Gerald Ford–era Bowie, Brooklyn legends-in-the-making TV on the Radio suddenly seem invested in body music, though they won’t drop their icy luster and sardonic breed of melancholy no matter who’s on their dance card. Renowned for martial, lugubrious rhythms that launched two dozen brooding tales of barricaded doors, rusty hearts, and the curses we cannot lift, TVOTR are now hyper-aware of all their city’s contemporary joy-pulses: the Nintendo dancehall of Gang Gang Dance (“Crying”); the party-’til-sunrise nu-Afrobeat party of Antibalas (“Dancing Choose”); the deceptively skeletal grooves of LCD Soundsystem (“Golden Age”); Rhys Chatham’s points and counterpoints (“Lover’s Day”); and, for some reason, classic drum ‘n’ bass (“DLZ”). New York City will assuredly not produce a better art-rock statement this year, but don’t be shocked if Dear Science isn’t as well-received as 2006 critic’s darling Return to Cookie Mountain. This one isn’t any less complicated, catchy, developed, or emotionally wrought—it just wasn’t made for these times.
Just two years ago, Cookie Mountain was the life-during-wartime bellow that nailed our post-post-9/11 ennui: the endless war that turned 2003’s frustration into 2006’s stifling boredom, the selfish drive to find love while others suffer. To wit, it was brimming with (military-)industrial howls and horseman drones that soundtracked the dull throb of anguish buried under the Anna Nicole Smith headlines. But in 2008, the Democratic National Convention boasts better ratings than the American Idol finale, and hope is on the horizon—at the very least, hope is possible. So all this new stuff about “the face of death under masthead” and “any little article will do” feels a little dated. It was cathartic to sing while the city burned, but feels a little weird to dance as it smolders.
Dear Science is filled with both protest and joy, but it’s all delivered with the same jaded snark: “angry young mannequin, American Apparently,” “the memory of our sacred so-and-so,” “I’m fat and in love and the bombs are fallin’ on me for sure,” etc. Not to mention the anti-corporation rap (!) that bites Eazy-E’s “Still Talkin’,” or the vague (possibly imagined) references to Metropolitan Idiot shit like cocaine and Lonelygirl15 and Last Night’s Party. When the band finally drops something encouraging (like “Golden Age”) or sweet (like “Lover’s Day,” which suggests we all stay home and fuck), you’re left second-guessing their sincerity. “Clap your hands if you think you’re in the right place.” Wait a minute, think? All right. We were the young Americans.
Lucky then that musically, Dear Science is a masterpiece. You can’t be certain if Tunde Adebimpe’s lyrics about allaying dread and throwing stones are buttressing or undermining triumphant opener “Halfway Home,” but you can be sure that the whole package is “Staring at the Sun” pop-ecstasy turned more windswept, more goosebump-arousing, more Phil-Spector-as-jet-engine, full of “Barbara Ann” ba-ba-bas and dizzying handclaps dotting the landscape in erratic fireworks. With every record, producer David Andrew Sitek gets progressively better at finessing noise, and now the popcorn horns (courtesy Antibalas), chirping string arrangements, and goth-siren wail of Celebration’s Katrina Ford simply burst from sequined curtains of feedback instead of being suffocated by them. Meanwhile, drummer Jaleel Bunton is the MVP, not just supplying new grooves, but making them as challenging and forward-thinking as any element of the band, a rhythmic complexity that’s part Tony Allen, part Greg Errico, part Aphex Twin. Ultimately, Dear Science asks questions instead of answering them, but Dancing About Politics is still dancing, and who needs an excuse for that?
TV on the Radio play the Brooklyn Masonic Temple October 14-16