Upon the release of TV on the Radio’s debut EP Young Liars, few would have guessed that the same group dropping hypnotically dense compositions like “Staring at the Sun” and covering Pixies songs a cappella would eventually become the standard bearers of modern indie rock. At the time, their sound was so foreign and unexpected, instruments produced and masked to the point of being unidentifiable, while the vocals were powerful and soulful, an absolute rarity in a genre better known for its scrappy imperfections. But as TV on the Radio grew into an honest-to-goodness rock band, they never let go of that boundary-pushing ideal, embracing a sinister and atmospheric sound with Return to Cookie Mountain and getting even funkier and sexier on Dear Science, all the while landing songs like “Wolf Like Me” and “Golden Age” on alternative radio.
To sustain a level of growth that they had previously endured seemed unlikely, and other notable indie rock bands, when faced with becoming household names, have had their own difficulties. Interpol and The Hold Steady have stayed the course, to diminishing returns, while the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, after some fits and starts, carved out an interesting new path, to exciting results. TV on the Radio’s fourth album, Nine Types of Light, is neither a stagnant retread or a radical reinvention, but rather a solid, nuanced album by a band that sounds looser and more comfortable.
First single “Will Do” is a perfect summation of the band’s headspace right now. It’s laid back, yet funky, showing off slight shoegazer influence but never growing overly noisy or dense. It’s, simply, a spectacular pop song, chill in its groove but heavy in production, rolling along a deep bassline and sharp spikes of guitar. Tunde Adebimpe’s sings in the song’s first verse, “It may be impractical to seek out a new romance/ we won’t know the actual until we take the chance,” a nice enough sentiment about love, but more interesting when applied to the group’s own musical approach.
Though Nine Types of Light doesn’t have the same bright flashes of playful experimentation as its predecessors, the band’s confidence and command finds them refining their sound with subtle touches. They transition from accordion and piano to funky bursts of horns in “Second Song” (which is actually the first). The atmospheric, six-minute epic “Killer Crane” incorporates acoustic guitar and a slow-burning ascent. Meanwhile, the group transitions into more immediate, harder rocking territory in the album’s second half, riding a nasty synth groove on “New Cannonball Run,” run through an infectious grown-up nursery rhyme on “Repetition” (“what’s the matter with your next door neighbor/ I heard he had sex, drugs and danger“), and pound out some meaty hard rock on triumphant closer “Caffeinated Consciousness.”
Every time TV on the Radio releases a new album, they reintroduce themselves to audiences to some degree. There’s always something new to be heard, and always a fresh approach. With Nine Types of Light, the band has decided to take it a little bit slower, easing into a groove rather than unleashing all their new tricks at once. And while the initial thrill and shock of that first EP has long since dissipated, Nine Types of Light is something potentially better: the work of a band whose music remains interesting and relevant nearly a decade into their career.
Video: TV on the Radio – “Will Do”
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.