TV on the Radio formed within the space and culture of New York, New York, a metropolis aptly portrayed one year ago in a review for The National's Boxer as "catastrophically wounded but still humming like a generator." Isolated as New York may be, Americans from sea to shining sea can no doubt relate to such desolation and persistence: our youth still enlist despite an endless parade of flag-draped caskets; our alarm clocks are still set each night despite continued layoffs; and our united voice still chose "hope" despite eight years of spoon-fed bullshit. Ours is a nation founded on the principle that discontent can always be overcome by equal portions grit and Gatsby-style optimism.
This same balance is reflected throughout TV on the Radio’s third studio album, Dear Science. These are gloomy days, and singers Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone know it. The two split songwriting duties nearly 50/50, yet coalesce around themes familiar to the coarse American political landscape: war, religion, environmentalism, corruption, materialism, racism, and technology. Malone questions the morality of Israeli military action on "Crying" and wonders "What's this dying for?" on "Stork & Owl." Adebimpe chastises an overtly disingenuous effort towards air quality on "DLZ" and, humorously, those vain enough to dress their Weimaraners in sweaters on "Dancing Choose." Elsewhere, shadows and gallows populate the chorus of "Family Tree," a timeworn interracial love story hindered by "an old idea" whose "roots of evil" are as firm and foundational as ever.
As with the 2008 presidential election, however, these disenchanted overtones only tell half the story. In an interview with The Onion's AV Club, Adebimpe likened the recording of 2006's Return to Cookie Mountain to "the Ren & Stimpy episode where they get space madness, and they're orbiting the planet, ready to kill each other for a bar of soap." Weary of their childish artistic clashes, TV on the Radio reconvened as a more sensible pop group bent on crafting a percussive, clean, and—according to Adebimpe—more "regular" album.
The result, which marries the band's usual status quo dissatisfaction with a less familiar brand of romanticism, is a far warmer sound than TV on the Radio has ever experimented with before. Horns and strings are noticeably brighter than on the aggressive and brooding Cookie Mountain, particularly in aid of the crescendoing "Family Tree" and "Lover's Day." Meanwhile, “Crying” and “Golden Age” are downright danceable, if not fit for pop radio. Adebimpe and Malone play a large role in the band’s sunnier tone; the power of love is a theme reiterated in nearly all of Dear Science’s eleven perfectly sequenced tracks.
The only problem? Five years ago, no band in America sounded like TV on the Radio. Now, TV on the Radio sound like TV on the Radio, and there's no telling how far this tank of gas will take them. Yet this band still seems awfully avant-garde compared to the bulk of their peers. Capturing both the despair and optimism that has defined the last year, Dear Science is TV on the Radio's most commercial-friendly album to date, but also their most sure-stepped, consistent, and best.
Watch the video for "Golden Age":