Monday, September 29, 2008

TV on the Radio / "Dear Science"

This is how you get popular without selling out. TV on the Radio have followed an ideal timeline for a band to achieve mainstream success without changing their sound to meet Top 40 standards. Arriving fully-formed and loaded with the incredible "Young Liars" EP in 2003, they were hit-and-miss (fortunately the former more than the latter) on their debut full-length "Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes" before fulfilling their early promise with 2006's excellent "Return to Cookie Mountain". Now comes "Dear Science", which takes the astronomical expectations forged by the success of "Cookie Mountain" and strides past them without breaking a sweat. TV on the Radio have crafted a career-defining masterpiece, while sounding as effortless as they ever have on record.

Opener "Halfway Home" swells with the energy of a dormant volcano awaiting eruption. Lead singer Tunde Adebimpe's falsetto floats across waves of muffled feedback and Dave Sitek's programmed drums guide the song on a linear path toward the inevitable eruption at the 4:30 mark. It's an even better opener than the near-perfect "I Was a Lover" from "Cookie Mountain" and establishes both the pop-oriented nature of the record as well as the quality of the tracks. Whereas "Cookie Mountain" was an album of expanding the boundaries of alternative music and creating beauty from the dark chasms of Sitek's production, "Dear Science" sees the band reaching that perfect mixture of pop music's popular sensibilities and the expansion-seeking experimentation of independent music, the way artists like David Bowie used to do. In fact, "Crying" sounds like vintage post-Berlin Bowie, with it's radio-ready beat and smooth yet expressive vocals. Lead single "Dancing Choose" begins with Adebimpe making use of a rap / spoken-verse delivery. Carried more by energy than composition, the song nonetheless succeeds, even if it's not quite the single "Wolf Like Me" was in 2006.

The album's torrid pace slows for yet another stand-out track in "Stork and Owl", before kicking back up to dance music speed with "Golden Age". "There's a golden age, comin' round, comin' round, comin' round!" sings Adebimpe with hope as the strings and drums and synthesizer give the song its intoxicating allure and make it impossible to deny. "Family Tree" is the album's slowest track, and while not as immediate as the tracks preceding it, it nonetheless remains beautiful, both lyrically and sonically. "We're laying in the shadow of your family tree, your haunted heart and me... There's a hundred hearts soar free, pumping blood to the roots of evil to keep it young" sings Adebimpe, his lyrics enigmatic yet poignant, made all the more visceral through the harp and woodwinds which lead the song. If there's any low point on this album, it's "Red Dress". An anti-war song, beginning "a-hey Jackboot! Fuck your war! I'm fat and in love and no bombs are fallin’ on me for sure." The vocals are just as ludicrous as the lyrics read, and the song never really finds its footing.

However, this lack of footing is only a misstep, not a full-out fall. The album reasserts itself with the slowly-building and irresistably poppy "Shout Me Out", which goes from bubblegum to guitar rock without missing a beat. The guitar solo which comprises the song's second half is easily the best guitar work the band has ever shown. "DLZ" is the late highlight of the album, propelled by the darkest mood on the album, recalling the best songs of "Cookie Mountain" and "Young Liars". Adebimpe makes more from a refrain of "la la la's" than should be possible, and the song starts off supremely well and only continues to get better and better as it progresses. Simply put, it's a perfect track.

"Lover's Day" closes the album on a high note, all anthemic rock and no pretense. The band brings out a marching band worth of instruments, holding nothing back. It's an apt summary of the album. TV on the Radio continue to expand their sound, all while making it increasingly user-friendly. I can't imagine that "Dear Science" will fail to add to their fan-base and the fervor which surrounds their album releases. I'd say it would be a hard album to top, but with the level of talent and execution on display, there really is no limit to what this band can do.

Rating: 9.0

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