With any new release from TV On The Radio you have to talk about two things. The first is the ridiculously high expectations that the band has put upon them by being one of the most consistently great acts in recent memory. The second is the fact that despite that consistency, you have no idea just what a new TV On The Radio record is going to sound like.
This band doesn’t necessarily push boundaries in the same way that say, Radiohead has in the past. Instead they push the boundaries of their identity as a band, never straying too far from some unidentifiable core that is TV On The Radio, yet managing to sound like a completely new band each and every time.
After the one two punch that was the politically charged antiwar manifesto of Return To Cookie Mountain and the hyper dance apocalypse of Dear Science, even to the band themselves it wasn’t clear what direction they were going. Taking what was to be an “indefinite hiatus” after the tour for that album, the band didn’t exactly slip away into the dark. There were side projects galore from just about all of the bands’ members. None of these projects really sounded remotely like anything that the band as a whole had ever turned out. And while all of this extra creative output was great, it left the listener with one burning question: What in the hell would this band sound like when they decided to come back?
They would sound all grown up.
From start to finish on Nine Types of Light, the band comes off as more “live” than they have ever sounded. In interviews they’ve said that the bulk of the album was recorded in a house in LA, rather than their normal studio in New York. Is the fact that they are getting better at playing together as an actual band the main influence here? There’s no question that these guys are lords of the studio, but on the last tour it was clear that they weren’t quite comfortable with the concept of being a touring entity. Having caught second show of the tour this weekend in Charlottesville, VA, I can tell you that not only do they seem to function as a more assured unit than the last time out, but new songs, for the most part, worked better than any of the tracks off of Dear Science or Return To Cookie Mountain.
Vocally, Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone are each reaching for new ground on this album. There are moments that come in songs like the beautifully sentimental “Keep Your Heart” where it sounds less like the two are singing that it does they are having their voices ripped from their bodies. It’s raw. It’s primal. And it makes an album that is already based more in emotion than politics resonate all the more.
And let’s talk about that emotion. Take this line from “Keep Your Heart”:
“Even if the world falls apart…I’m going to keep your heart”
That’s as simple a sentiment as you can get, but given the delivery here, the listener has no choice but to be bowled over by its sincerity and sweetness. Nine Types of Light is full of delicate moments like this. In turning inwards, the band actually connects with the listener on a level that I don’t feel they ever have before. Sure, there’s a few songs that remind us of what came before (“New Cannonball Run”, “Repetition”) but really it is the band’s transition from hyper-paranoia to hyper-soulfulness that drives the record to a place that seems to be exactly where they belong.
Whether they are singing about the end of a relationship (“You”), blowing past all pop/R&B sensibilities with a tale of unrequited love (“Will Do” – the album’s first single) or walking you through the horror show that is “Forgotten” (with the best line, “what should we wear…and who’s for dinner”, to ever escape a Mad Max film) they do so with sense of determination that works on every level you could want a record like this to work on.
In fact, if there is one negative, and it is barely one at that, it’s the albums closer, “Caffeinated Consciousness”. In an album full of love songs it’s just about the only song that blatantly concerns itself with war, catastrophe and horror in general…and it does it all to the tune of INXS’s “Guns in the Sky”. Whether this is intentional or not, we’ll never know (unless one of the band members wants to contact me about it. You do, don’t you guys?). And it doesn’t make it a bad song by any means. The themes of survival, fear, and war presented in this song are bubbling under the surface of the rest of the album, making it sort of THE necessary closer. But it’s connection to, if not straight lifting of INXS’s song from 20 some years ago which was also addressing some of these same themes does nothing but put a grin on my face every time I hear it. If it’s a joke, it’s perfectly executed. If it’s unintentional, which I suspect it might be it just confirms that TV On The Radio aren’t just swimming in the pop ocean, they are becoming the whole damn thing.
Elegant, heartfelt and soulful. Not words you necessarily would have associated with this band before now. But they seem like fitting additions to the words like masterful, powerful and genius that we already use to talk about them. This is without question a great album and a great step forward in the band’s career.
TV On The Radio. All grown up and EVERYWHERE to go.
TV On The Radio in Charlottesville, VA Saturday night
TV On The Radio @ The Jefferson Theater