On TV on the Radio’s last tour stop in San Diego, singer Tunde Adebimpe delivered a brief soliloquy, ruminating upon the absurd future we seem to have stumbled upon. He spoke of how we lived in a time where everything is possible, but nothing works, about how the greater problems of hunger and disease haven’t been solved, but we’ve mastered making a better penis enlarger. This only seems fitting considering the circumstances surrounding the release of the band’s sophomore album, Return to Cookie Mountain. It leaked online long before any release date was settled upon, instantly yielding praise from every critic and college kid with a blog. Yet the mp3s of the album were, themselves, flawed, most noticeably in the wrongly titled “Playhouses” and “Wolf Like Me” and the occasional digital hiccup in sound quality. Both blessed and cursed by this course of events, they may have sealed their position in everyone’s top ten, even it wasn’t presented as their final vision.
Still, anybody who downloaded tracks from mp3 blogs still would have had a chance to hear what kind of brew the Brooklyn five-piece were stirring on their new album and have a pretty good idea of what the band was up to. Now, with a tangible copy, artwork and a final tracklist, Cookie Mountain becomes even more of a real entity than it was before, the final product being greater than in its initial emergence. It’s hard to pinpoint what it is, exactly—better sound quality maybe, perhaps a proper running order, or even the idea of a complete whole—but it’s even better than what you’ve been told.
As stunning as Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes was, Cookie Mountain improves on that album’s inspired and unconventional sounds with stronger production and even greater ambition. Nothing in the way of accessibility has been sacrificed. Rather, these may be greatly fractured and complex pop songs, but they’re still pop songs. Just as much as Youth was playfully dark, Cookie Mountain seems to delve even further into paranoid themes while, at times, remaining joyful and ecstatic.
This absurd future Adebimpe alluded to is visited and made all the more eerie here, balancing paranoia and Opener “I Was a Lover” displays this well, Adebimpe and Kyp Malone harmonizing “I was a lover before this war,” later adding “we’re sleepwalking through this trial/and it’s really a crime,” echoing the unrest circulating in our current social and political climate, a theme visited before in the anti-Bush free download, “Dry Drunk Emperor.” But even an uneasy feeling like this gives way to humorous lines like “We liked to party/and we kept it live/and we kept a three volume tome of contemporary slang/to keep a handle on all this jive.”
Return to Cookie Mountain boasts a few notable guest appearances, the biggest name being David Bowie on the ballad “Province,” which finds Bowie and TVOTR’s duo of vocalists harmonizing among swirling, reverberant piano. Likewise, Kazu Makino adds her ghostly talent to the haunting second track, “Hours.” In this track, the band seems to have found the meeting place between Speaking in Tongues era Talking Heads and Joy Division, creating a dark, even slightly scary song made funky. And Celebration’s Katrina Ford, who previously made an appearance on the band’s stunning single “Staring At the Sun,” sings backup on three of the album’s best songs: “Wolf Like Me,” “Let the Devil In” and “Blues From Down Here.” “Devil” actually contains an added “choir” of singers, giving it a chaotic post-punk gospel dub sound, while “Blues From Down Here” throws horns on top of the band’s dirty grooves.
Somewhere in the middle, the band’s carnal instincts kick in, particularly on “Dirtywhirl” and “Wolf Like Me.” The former is subtler in its execution, a waltzing, whirling track containing touches of Rhodes piano which finds Adebimpe comparing a romantic partner to a tropical storm (“dirty little whirlwind/tangled up in the flesh of a girl“). “Wolf Like Me,” the one that was originally mislabeled as “Playhouses,” takes a similar approach, comparing sex to lycanthropy. On the album’s most straightfoward and rocking track, Adebimpe croons “My mind has changed my body’s frame/but God I like it,” Ford harmonizing in the end, “We’re howling forever.”
Amidst the dark atmosphere and between the paranoia and minor keys, there is hope. There is something unbelievably inspirational about Return to Cookie Mountain, though it’s felt, rather than said. Few bands are capable of making music this powerful, let alone this good. TV on the Radio have created not just one of the best albums of the year, but of the decade, and while it may not be as much of a surprise anymore, it’s an unstoppable force with reverberations to ring out long into the future.
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.