When TV on the Radio arrived in 2003 with their excellent debut EP Young Liars, they presented themselves as innovators, slathering their soupy pop music in heady production and stunning vocal melodies. Less than a year later, on 2004’s Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes, they revealed themselves to be a down `n’ dirty rock band as well, still thinking outside the box, yet all too eager to go barbershop or electro-funk at a moment’s notice. Then on 2006’s Return to Cookie Mountain, they raised the bar even higher, staking their claim as one of the most forward thinking bands in rock music, and most certainly the best. With Dear Science, the band’s third full-length, it just seems that bar keeps on being pushed even higher.
Dear Science is a classic TV on the Radio album, on numerous levels. In one respect, there are the heady shoegazer rock songs that came to represent the trademark TVOTR sound on albums past. And in another sense, it’s a classic TV on the Radio album in that it’s restless, revealing the band as all too eager to step outside their comfort zone and tackle new sounds and new experiments. In the hands of a lesser band, an attempt to pull a sound in so many different directions at once could prove impossible, if not awkward. Yet if there was one band that could pull it off, it’s TV on the Radio.
Album opener “Halfway Home” is both comforting and awe-inspiring, signaling a return to a familiar TVOTR groove while soaring into a majestic and powerful chorus. Singer Tunde Adebimpe shows off the impressive range of his pipes as he sings “is it not me?/ Am I not rolled into your crush?/ the road you chose/ unloads control/ see it take me so/ go on throw this stone/ into this halfway home.” And all the while, David Sitek’s stunning whirlwind of sound engulfs everything within. Just one track later, the band changes course completely, easing into the soulful funk-fest “Crying,” showing off their best Prince grooves and electro breakdowns. And yet, only one more track later, “Dancing Choose” reveals another sharp left turn, finding Adebimpe viciously spitting “he’s a what?!/ he’s a what?!/ he’s a newspaper man/ and he gets his best ideas from a newspaper stand,” over an upbeat but subtle melody, only to find the contrast flipped during the chorus, as Adebimpe sings a subdued hook over a heavy bed of fuzz.
The band corrals their best ballads on Dear Science, including the Kate Bush-like string sampling “Stork & Owl,” and “Family Tree,” an echo-laden piano track that simultaneously evokes Animal Collective and “Rainbow Connection.” Again, this is something that likely only TVOTR could accomplish. Meanwhile, first single “Golden Age” brings more funk and good vibes all around, with the choral hook “Age of miracles/ age of sound/ Well, there’s a Golden Age/ comin’ round” serving as a celebratory rallying cry. And I’d be happy to join that party anytime. Similarly, “Red Dress” offers a Hellish breakdown of Biblical proportions, with meaty organ and Jaleel Bunton’s hot beats laying a fiery backdrop for an invitation to “come bear witness to the Whore of Babylon.” The stunning “Love Dog,” meanwhile, is merely one of the best songs the band has ever written.
The skipping beats of “Shout Me Out” provide some little pleasures, and a break from the album’s more bombastic moments, though the song ultimately ascends to a louder and more urgent climax. Shorly thereafter, “DLZ” takes things back up a notch (or twelve) with its hypnotic bassline and stunning “la la la” vocal interplay between Adebimpe and Katrina Ford from Baltimore’s Celebration. And with “Lover’s Day,” the band closes with an epic and upbeat standout, a sex jam that somehow becomes a universal call to the audience with the promise “I’m gonna take you home.”
In the interest of full disclosure, I fully expected Dear Science to be an amazing album. And sure enough, it’s yet another new peak for a band that introduced themselves with a five-song EP better than almost everything else released in 2003. It may be dangerous to hold TV on the Radio to such high expectations. But when they keep exceeding those expectations, it merely reinforces the notion that they’re one of the best bands in America today.
Video: Golden Age
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.