(Editors Note: Recently, Between Love and Like added a new writer, Dave 'Scout' Tafoya, to our crew. This review is Scout's first contribution to us, the first, we hope, of many. Welcome Scout!)
When an established band changes its sound – the size of the shift notwithstanding – they take a risk. They risk alienating an existing fanbase, they risk not finding an audience for their new sounds, they risk opening themselves up to new pressures, and they risk criticism from everyone with a voice loud enough to whisper. With this in mind, when a band decides on a 180 degree shift, to go where it’s never gone before, they must possess many qualities, the foremost among those being boldness.
TV on the Radio is a band with a blend of sonic components so particular that not even veteran critics have been able to appropriately classify them. Elements of doo-wop, R&B, drone rock, post-punk, soul, and avant-garde are utilized in their records, often in the same song. Little surprise then that TVotR's latest release, the musically accessible, Dear Science, takes ground elsewhere, in unambiguous political fury and whiplash-inducing stylistic transformations.
This transformation isn’t immediately evident from the first track on Dear Science, the stomping, fuzzy “Halfway Home,” but the fury is. Lead singer Tunde Adebimpe’s lyrics are cryptic and seem to place blame for some natural catastrophe on every individual who had knowledge of it but did nothing to stop it. The production subtly betrays a firmer presence of every member of the band – the bass crawls around behind the layers and layers of guitar and synth, while the drums sound like a mixture of programming and live kit. When “Home” draws to its phase-heavy close, the first real evidence of change arrives in the form of guitarist Kyp Malone’s sultry and soulful “Crying.” Malone’s voice, long lost behind Adebimpe’s commanding multi-octave range, is loud, clear, and shows a personality akin to Curtis Mayfield. Guitarist (and TVotR producer) David Sitek’s sound is discernible here in that time-honored tradition of lightly-distorted funk guitar, the notes being plucked, rather than that beautiful, Godspeed You! Black Emperor scraping he typically favors. Sitek’s guitar remains reigned in throughout the record, and compliments the arrival of the playful sounding synth and horn section funk (and what an entrance they make). Malone’s lyrics hint strongly at a corrupt figurehead not unlike the one recently dethroned by Barack Obama (mention is made of “coke in the nose of the nobles” and “tanks with no red light in sight”). It is here where the album’s strongest lyrical theme comes into play, that of a progressive era just around the corner. Just before the song’s many complimentary instrumental licks weave in between each other to form the closing measures, Malone calls for change: “Time to take the wheel and the road from the masters. Take this car, drive it straight into the wall, build it back up from the floor and stop our crying.” His voice shaking the rafters, Malone wants us to reach out and grab that power to change, as it is mere inches from our hands.
"Dancing Choose," a rocker with gangsta rap coursing through its veins, breaks with the band's normal stylistic boundaries. Four notes of distorted bass and then Adebimpe coming out swinging, his deft enunciation is backed by subdued rhythm section and saxophone, the whole scene reminiscent of an Ali one-two punch. This is TV on the Radio encapsulating post-punk as a whole, as it’s never been done before. “Stork and Owl” has Malone harmonizing quite beautifully with himself about death, love, and birth, sounding like an early-TVOTR tune with cinematic production. Its break-in pace seems somewhat out of step though when following “Choose” and coming before the album's strutting peak, “Golden Age.” “Golden Age,” is a song as catchy as it is poignant, and seems to capture all the best elements of 1970s music. Malone’s fluid rhythm and his assurance of that progressive era’s proximity just in time is enough to make the last eight years in America feel like just a bad dream. When the horns, layered vocals, dizzying violins, and simple but undeniable bass line come in, the song gives the illusion of waking from one dream (of decay and darkness) into another one (of euphoria and of the horns of seraphs). Sitek’s production is never better than on this minor miracle track. And he doesn’t stop there.
Sitek nearly outdoes himself on “Family Tree.” A combination of a hauntingly gorgeous piano riff steeped in delay and reverb and Adebimpe’s words are a testament to the pleasures of the now and the joy of life out of the shadows of legacy. With the help of Malone’s high harmonies and those swooning strings, “Family Tree” forms an unforgettable breath of life. It is the most uncharacteristic song in the TVOTR canon and their sweetest, most aurally pleasing effort to date. They then drop-kick us back into strife, hypocrisy, and political piracy, lest we get too comfortable, with “Red Dress.” Jagged guitar playing by Sitek and Malone, coupled with drummer Jaleel Bunton’s relentless afrobeat percussion, leads this tale of slavery and lost identity. As different from early TVOTR as “Fear of Music” was from “Talking Heads: 77,” “Red Dress” brims with anger and the fire of life.
Sitek’s mixing and producing creativity shines bright on the next three tracks. He pulls out all the stops and fills every second with production tricks on “Love Dog, each one as captivating as the next. But this quiet, brooding post-punk slow-burner is best suited to headphones as it exudes more atmosphere than hooks. “Shout Me Out” features acrobatic melodies and a chorus that sticks in the head, and “DLZ,” an indictment of death erasing one’s legacy on earth, becomes better with every repeat listen.
To say that Dear Science finishes strongly is putting it mildly. “Lover’s Day,” boldest of the album’s rebellion and genre-bending madness, is the most vivid and impassioned depiction of two bodies intertwined outside of the misogynistic confines of modern Hip-Hop, or the exaggerated naughty world of Prince. The music starts calm, military drums and soft tambourine, and builds. The music of “Lover’s Day” never reaches the same climax as Malone’s words do, but the song is still as lasting a testament to intimacy as there ever was.
Dear Science may be different from TV on the Radio's earliest efforts but this difference is genuine, emotional, demanding, captivating, exciting, and vital. It's got some definitive high points and while each of those points may not be the same height, Dear Science absolutely proves that TV on the Radio has the balls to switch things up, to vary from the tried and true. These changes were well worth the risk.