Two years ago, the cover illustration for the 34th Village Voice Pazz & Jop issue featured a near-septuagenarian white man running over a younger contender of color for the highest prize in the land: Four-time poll victor Bob Dylan and his Great Depression–obsessed Modern Times blazed his motorized scooter over the back of TV on the Radio’s Kyp Malone and his band’s Greater Depression–obsessed Return to Cookie Mountain. The drawing understandably drew the ire of TVOTR; in a letter to the editor, hornman/collaborator Martín Perna deemed the metaphorical rendering of the critical election results “racist, unfunny, mean-spirited, and inaccurate,” an image ultimately demeaning the Brooklyn band’s “small army of extended family,” its resultant “indescribably ecstatic sound,” and their “collective dignity.”
Now comes the band’s revenge, in the form of Dear Science, the resounding victor of this year’s Pazz & Jop album poll and a triumphant presence on most other charts (though it just barely eked out a victory over Dylan’s mid-’90s leftovers at Rolling Stone). Not that a CD, of all arcane things, can salve a single racial or generational conflict (as if any sort of election can, either), but in terms of a greater sensation of cooperative power than almost anyone of my generation had ever experienced or imagined pre-Obama, it soundtracked that too-fleeting sensation. Rather than being ushered through police fences for impotent antiwar protests as we were in ’03, for many of us, Election Night 2008 inspired spontaneous dancing (and shouting and weeping and embracing) in the streets. Who knew that our own sense of “collective dignity” could ever be restored?
Perhaps the band knew all along. Interviewing Malone earlier this year, he spoke often of the band’s “non-hierarchical forms,” about their inherent democracy. But democracy takes time to develop. Cookie Mountain was the sound of a band barricaded deep inside its own skull for fear of thought-crime or something similarly oblique and paranoid, capturing voters’ heads—as the Voice explained it then, noting that the record appeared on more ballots than Dylan’s, though those ballots gave it fewer points—”but failing to completely win their hearts.” The dour thoughts and despair were ever-present, as were the beats, but they were blocky, martial things, fine enough for marching, but not really for dancing, vertically or horizontally. “I was a lover before this war,” that album began. But sitting around waiting for the perpetual War on Terror to end as a prerequisite to getting down again was simply not an option come Dear Science. Nor was the sentiment of 2003’s “Young Liars”: “Fucking for fear of not wanting to fear again/Lonely is all we are.”
Fear and loathing and loneliness still nestle and bristle inside the spaces of Dear Science—along with denial, complacency, distrust, and desperation—but the body-moving groove trumps all. Even Dave Sitek’s suffocating atmospherics—by now a band trademark—get broken up, not just by the bubblegum ba-ba-bahm-bahm-bahm‘s on the ecstatic opener “Halfway Home,” but by the slinky, lithe guitar lines and supple drumlines. TVOTR have finally tapped into their inner Prince.
Which is not to contend that the cerebral Brooklyn art-rock band made the best fuck music, much less the best party music, much less the most despondent music of the year (hell, they aren’t even art-rock). To my ears, nothing soundtracked the dour times of 2008 better than Portishead: The once trip-hop trio returned from the dead a decade on with Third, sounding wholly undead, unsure, fraught, yet somehow recalcitrant. Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah and Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III were messier pleasures, id-riddled and self-indulgent, yet effortlessly funky and sticky-icky down to every last harebrained whim. Bon Iver hit higher castrato notes; Fleet Foxes conjured more ethereal harmonies. Hercules and Love Affair convened a broader collective of NY weirdos and more frequently conjured massive grooves. MGMT and Cut Copy welded more charming dance-pop hooks; Girl Talk threw the more hedonistic party. Hell, even a “foam-injected Axl Rose life-size,” as Dear Science itself oddly put it, out-micromanaged Sitek’s auteur-producer tendencies by a dozen years with Chinese Democracy.
But no one amalgamated so many conflicted feelings and divergent tendencies into something so strangely unified as TV on the Radio. Who else could lyrically touch upon Romeo and Juliet‘s balcony scene, the strange fruit hanging from Southern trees, the Garden of Eden, and codependency, then garland it with pianos and strings straight out of Viva La Vida (make that Joe Satriani), as the band does on “Family Tree”? Who else rendered a song about fucking that somehow evokes every accidental headbutt, elbow in the eye, broken bed, leg cramp, and belly fart of lovemaking like the sloppy finale, “Lover’s Day”? Or denounced disaster capitalism’s bellicose tendencies as infectiously as did the breakbeats of “DLZ”?
Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine no doubt informs that song (in the recent Spin feature on the band, Malone admits its influence). But at the very end of that grim book documenting our country’s cruel economic therapies and corporate mercenary armies, and our oblivious acquiescence to such policies, some small glint of audacious hope shines through. On the very last page, Klein writes: “Unlike the fantasy of the Rapture . . . local people’s renewal movements begin from the premise that there is no escape from the substantial messes we have created. . . . These are movements that do not seek to start from scratch but rather from scrap, from the rubble that is all around.”
I’d argue that, if anything, TV on the Radio emulate such rewnewal movements, this striving for a “collective dignity” amid such rubble. Not to conflate the electing of Barack Obama with putting TVOTR atop this critical and musical scrapheap, but both entities agree that there is no escape from this mess, that it’s time for all of us to stop all of our cryin’. There remains very real work to be done in this Golden Age comin’ round.