Dear Science: TV on the Radio solves all of the world's problems

By Peter Valelly

TV on the Radio occupies a cozy spot in the music world. Perpetual toast of the culturati, they’ve seen their every release land itself in dozens of year-end top tens. Even their 2002 “Young Liars” EP, released a year before their first full-length album, garnered more accolades than most other bands of their generation can hope for in their whole careers.Somewhere along the way, this went to their head, so they recorded a dark, dense sophomore record, “Return to Cookie Mountain,” that towered as an impressive artistic monolith, and earned them due accolades.

Yet “Cookie Mountain” effectively jettisoned the compulsive, oddball tics that gave “Young Liars” and their debut LP, the awesomely-titled “Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes,” such infectious appeal and thrilling potential. With their third album “Dear Science,” which was released on Tuesday, TV on the Radio have discovered the middle ground between these two phases of their sound, delivering their brightest, quirkiest, and best full-length yet.

If there’s one thing this album proves, then, it’s that filling in a missing step can be a leap forward, too. Nearly every track seems to reassume their earlier work’s sense of oddball fun, serving as correctives to the self-seriousness of “Return to Cookie Mountain” as well as to the dreary conventions of the criminally boring indie rock scene.

Opener “Halfway Home,” for instance, ditches dull indie percussion protocol for a stereo-panning ocean of toms and handclaps, an awe-inspiring network of rhythm that enervates the song’s droney washes of sound. Like many of the songs here, “Halfway Home” seems curiously like a more fleshed out, less self-serious, and more compulsively listenable cousin to a track from “Cookie Mountain” or “Desperate Youth;” in this case, the latter’s “Poppy,” with its wedding of a rigid rhythmic template and epic compositional sweep.
“Family Tree,” meanwhile, evokes the last LP’s most wetly emotional moment, the shimmering “Province,” yet remains both more inviting and more restrained. The chorus showcases TVOTR’s most unapologetically pop melody ever, and showcases the curiously rigid and classicist strings that dominate the album’s instrumentation.

Indeed, what seems to give the album its sonic spark is the band’s curious suturing of some seriously sweaty funk playing with a whole heap of schmaltz-derived orchestration. The result, shepherded by production sage and founding TVOTR member David Andrew Sitek, is a cavernous reanimation of the peak decades of black pop, the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. At once playful and abstract, the sound retains the sonic detail of “Cookie Mountain” while reanimating it with an irreverent, revenant sense of funk ‘n’ soul fun.

“Red Dress,” for starters, is a fiery funk-rocker sure to be a highlight when the band hits the road next month for a lengthy tour. Itchy pop-soul number “Crying” is deliciously warped by singer Tunde Adebimpe’s reggae-Bowie impersonation and the song’s peculiarly serene disintegration in its last minute. Adebimpe’s slithering vocals on the brilliant single “Golden Age,” meanwhile, show off the fullest crystallization yet of the band’s Prince influence.

A couple of tracks struggle to stand on their own. “Dancing Choose” is a mouthful of stilted indie toasting that whizzes by without accomplishing anything really remarkable. “Stark and Owl” is a pointless downer, a darkly expressionistic paint smear of a tune which, while it adds emotional color to the album’s overall timbre, is pretty forgettable. All is forgiven, however, on the album’s closing trilogy.

“Shout Me Out” starts out with anxious rhythms, plaintive vocals and echoing slashes of guitar before bubbling over into a kinetic rock track which far outstrips dry workouts like the band’s earlier “Wolf Like Me.” The band’s playing veers almost towards trip-hop on the infectious, building “DLZ.”

Yet the group hits their career peak with the closing “Lover’s Day,” which lays Adebimpe’s deadpan sexual come-ons-“I wanna love you all the way off/ I wanna break your back,” he sings, voice brittle and sinister-over a post-hop processional which charts its rhythmic coordinates somewhere between early Timbaland and a New Orleans jazz funeral. The horn section’s uplifting thrust ultimately carries the song, and the album, to a sustained, very nearly tantric finish.

Overwhlemingly, “Dear Science” is a shot in the arm for the indie establishment, and a vindication for those who early on spotted TV on the Radio as one of the (very few) interesting rock bands to emerge this decade. Where some bands gesture at epic stature by filching tricks from ancestors like Radiohead or the abominable U2, TVOTR have gotten there by slaying their previous attempt at the Serious Statement. The band has buried “Return to Cookie Mountain” under a perplexing middle-of-the-road pop fetish, a funk-descended sense of rhythmic flash and muscle sorely lacking from every corner of the music world, and a powerful ethic of weirdness.

Science? Hardly. Brilliance? Yes.