For a brief moment in late 2008, it felt like the clouds were parting after eight dark years, and TV on the Radio’s supremely great “Golden Age” might just be heralding the start of something truly amazing. The band went all in, leaving any arty pretension to the music video and earnestly proclaiming that, holy shit, positivity and patience might just pay off.
Well, that certainly didn’t last long, did it? Though it might have felt in a tiny way like Blue America’s own “Winds of Change,” even Kyp Malone himself was dubious. “I just voted for a dude who supports wiretapping,” he told Spin in early 2009, “because that was the best option.”
Fast forward a couple years, when we’re only a few months away from what the Mayans and Roland Emmerich warn us is our civilization’s high-concept apocalypse, and a gang of clever L.A. assholes predicts that the future will get odder before it gets better. As for Malone, he’s resigned to irony. “Do the ‘no future,'” he warbles, as if true believers have any other choice. “Shake it like it’s the end of time.” He forgot to include the part where we throw up our hands.
Drawing its rhetorical thrust equally from Sun Ra’s “Nuclear War” and Jon Stewart’s latest shoulder-shrugging Daily Show segment “I Give Up,” “Future” is the funky sigh of smart folks comprehending their own helplessness in the face of forces they understand but can’t hope to change. It’s also the lone political moment on Nine Types of Light, an album on which a band whose every action feels crucial decides to step back and gaze at the apocalypse that its team couldn’t help prevent. On the sexiest song here, Malone coos “If the world all falls apart/I’m gonna keep your heart.” Sweet and romantic, sure, but also sort of Beyond Thunderdome when you think about it.
Light is also the first TV on the Radio album to be recorded away from the band’s comfy boho surroundings in north Brooklyn. And then some: the band decamped to a mall-based studio near Rodeo Drive that, Tunde Adebimpe claims, is three blocks from a plastic surgery clinic. Granted, if your muse is such that you want to sit back and watch the Decline of Western Civilization without trying to intervene, Los Angeles is where you go. And the group still has its eyes open, it’s just that the transcontinental relocation means it’s taking in different sights. The glassy funk of “Forgotten” is pulled tight like a Botoxed forehead before giving way to a brass fanfare fit for the Four Horsemen. As it builds, Adebimpe sketches a surreal, eerily prescient scene: “Beverly Hills/Nuclear winter/What should we wear/And who’s for dinner?”
The best songs here deal with interpersonal bonds, proving that in all of its TMI awkwardness, “Lover’s Day” wasn’t a fluke: these guys can write love songs on their own terms. This time, it’s Adebimpe’s turn; “Will Do” and “You” are the two best songs on the album, and two of his most mature performances to date. The former is a lithe, muscular plea to a lost love for “any time at all,” the latter a towering synthpop anthem in which he lets a girl set sail with no regrets. In 2006, he turned into a wolf when the sun went down. In the video for “Will Do,” we watch as he sips a coffee before strapping on a Strange Days-style VR helmet to get the next best thing to being with his lost love–a simulation of being nude and interlocked with her. Okay, they’re still plenty TMI when they want to be. Maybe they were stung by the prediction in “Golden Age” meeting the same practical fate as “Yes We Can,” but it’s clear that the band has fully embraced the allure of individuality.
Light is the first TVOTR album that plays to type instead of breaking new ground, which means that some of the band’s tropes risk bordering on parody, and their well-known penchant for compositional ADD seems like a bit of overcompensation. Science opened with the roaring “Halfway Home”; Light begins with “Second Song,” which seems to get lost before accidentally wandering into the band’s umpteenth falsetto-funk chorus. The layers of texture Sitek piles on “No Future Shock”–steel pans, Raga, Feelies-style hyper jangle, a big brass finish–add up to overstimulation.
Appropriate, then, that Light ends with “Caffeinated Consciousness,” the album’s most amped-up track and one that lives up to the promise of its title by toggling between a pummeling riff that sits somewhere between Run D.M.C. and the Pixies’ “UMass,” and a B section that scans more as P.M. Dawn. It’s spastic like a sugar buzz, but with a purpose. In what feels like a sequel to the State of the Union address that was “Dancing Choose,” Adebimpe suggests, however obliquely, the possibility of harnessing our excess energy and rerouting it toward a productive end.
He doesn’t necessarily lay out a playbook for this sort of thing, but then again that’s not the point. The language of pop–which TV on the Radio are still learning, and which has a much smaller audience than at the peak of MTV’s powers–can neatly encapsulate world events too huge to summarize with words alone. This is Joshua Clover’s argument from his great recent book 1989: Bob Dylan Didn’t Have This to Sing About. He contends, compellingly so, that the epochal Eastern European events at the end of the ’80s can be summarized in equal measure by historian Francis Fukuyama’s notorious slogan “the end of history” and Jesus Jones’s axiomatic 1991 hit “Right Here Right Now.”
If TV on the Radio are one of our primary guides to our human condition, and if “Golden Age” and “Dancing Choose” have given way to “No Future Shock” and “Caffeinated Consciousness,” it means one of two things: We’re completely fucked; or (more likely) pop and its practitioners still need to come to terms with a moment that seems to exceed its grasp.
TV on the Radio play the Music Hall of Williamsburg tonight (April 12) and Radio City Music Hall April 13.