When I first listened to TV on the Radio, I was immediately intrigued. The first song of theirs that I ever heard was “Dreams” from their debut album Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes. Within the first thirty seconds of the song, I immediately knew I was hearing something new and entirely different than any other band around at the time. The heavy synths that drenched the tune and the late 80’s Bowie-esque vocals were a far cry from the Strokes and White Stripe-aping acts of the day. There was something darker going on here. With despondent, Joy Division-esque lyrics such as “All your dreams are over now/all your wings have fallen down” and cold, industrial electronic instrumentation, I knew I was hearing a band that was following a different path than most of the indie rockers of the day.
When their next record, Return to Cookie Mountain, was released in 2006, you couldn’t have kept me away from the record store. Upon purchase of the album, I was greeted with more than I expected: a gritty, incredibly dense album of primal percussion, calculated drum beats, and more of the darkness that their first album foreshadowed. Signature track “Wolf Like Me” made its way into commercials and innumerable television shows as background music. But that track was a standout on Return to Cookie Mountain mainly because of its catchy, traditional rock sound, an aesthetic that was not shared on most of the other songs on the album. It was a tough album to absorb, and I would have to say that it probably took me more than a few months of careful listening to really appreciate everything that was packed into each dense and difficult track.
Cut to last year: I saw that TV on the Radio was going to be playing in Austin at La Zona Rosa. I was at this point fully sucked in to Return to Cookie Mountain, but I was a bit apprehensive about how such an album that relied so heavily on studio effects and trickery would translate to a live setting. Despite these reservations, I knew it was an experience I could not miss, so I took the plunge and bought a ticket. To my surprise and delight, I learned that, behind all of the studio fuzz and electronic enhancement, that TV on the Radio was, at their heart, a rock band. Even the most dense of their songs gained an incredible amount of heart and soul when performed live by the members of the band on true instruments.
To say that I have been anticipating the release of their latest album would be an understatement, and now that I have heard it, I am a bit overwhelmed. This new record is like nothing I’ve ever heard before. From the very beginning with opening track “Halfway Home”, the band has carved a new niche in popular music, something that is simultaneously more accessible andmore difficult at the same time. There is no “Wolf Like Me” on this album, meaning only that you’re not likely to hear any of these songs on the next episode of “Grey’s Anatomy”, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Drenched in pervasive synths and sparse, electronic drumbeats, the opening song is among the best things that TV on the Radio has committed to record. As the song progresses, it becomes apparent that lead singer Tunde Adebimpe has added so much more range to his singing voice as to make the animal of TV on the Radio a much more powerful and formidable beast. At around the 4:20 mark, the song hits its stride as an anthemic amalgamation of all that has come before and all that will come after for this groundbreaking band.
What follows is a masterful record, a true document of a band unquestionably finding that ever fleeting balance between the experimental and the accessible. “Golden Age” is a danceable mixture of 80’s era David Bowie and Prince, while “Dancing Choose” is the track that Bloc Party has been trying so desperately to record for the last four years. The centerpiece of the album is the gorgeous ballad “Family Tree”, the multi-track vocals and echoing piano and strings creating an emotional and hypnotizing experience that truly demonstrates the craft and expertise of a band in their prime.
TV on the Radio have always fallen on the experimental side of modern indie rock, and this album is no exception. To say that this is their most accessible album is in no way stating that they have “sold out” or abandoned any of their artistic sensibilities. Instead, TV on the Radio has found a way to combine all of their strengths to craft an album that is both immediately engaging and rewardingly dense. Album of the year? We still have three months to go, but it will take a lot to top this.