Artist: TV on the Radio
In Brief: This is the most immediate, accessible, and downright poppy album I’ve heard from TVOTR thus far. It’s also the least challenging. I have really mixed feelings about that.
When a key member departs from a band, it’s easy to chalk a subsequent change of sound up to that member’s absence. Sometimes you don’t realize how integral that person was to the band’s sound until he or she is gone. But then sometimes a band makes a conscious choice to start a new chapter and maybe explore some new musical directions in their absence. I’m not really sure which is the case with TV on the Radio, but late last year, they gave us Seeds, their first release since they went on a bit of a hiatus after the untimely death bassist Gerard Smith. (When is a death “timely”, honestly? Probably never, but it really sucked for the band that the passing a of a dear friend ended up casting a long shadow of gloom over the release of Nine Types of Light, a record that was fully written and recorded before they realized they were going to lose him.)
Some have interpreted this new record as a fresh start for the band, a chance to move on optimistically after their time of mourning. I can’t say whether it was a conscious attempt to change up their usual fuzzed-out-electronica-meets-streetwise-R&B mix, but I was definitely surprised at how poppy and catchy a lot of it was in comparison to the slow-burning Nine Types of Light or even the mostly upbeat Dear Science. (I’ll confess that I can’t make comparisons to anything before that, since Dear Science is where I got on board, but it seems that TVOTR has always had a penchant for challenging their listeners with an unusual mash-up of genres in one form or another.) I feel like there’s a lot more effort spent on being up-tempo and optimistic throughout these twelve tracks, even though the record starts with a few mid-tempo quasi-ballads. There’s nothing on this record as sparse or as drawn out as tracks like “Family Tree” or “Killer Crane” that acted as dramatic centerpieces on the last few records. There’s also nothing quite as furious as the rapidfire “Dancing Choose” or the punctuated shouts of “Caffeinated Consciousness”. TVOTR has a habit of throwing both extremes into their records just to jolt you out of your comfort zone when you think you know exactly what’s going on, and even though I don’t always get what they’re doing right away, I appreciate the change-ups. Seeds, by comparison, goes down nice and easy, but it has far fewer surprises. Throw down a catchy drum loop or a trance-like bit of sampling, layer a zippy guitar riff on top of it, and repeat those elements throughout the song, and you’ve got the recipe for a good chunk of this album. Sometimes it works incredibly well, and it makes me think the band should be this upbeat and easygoing more often. Sometimes it feels like they’re phoning it in and they’ve forgotten how to change up the dynamics over the course of a song. That results in a lot of tracks that seem agreeable at first, but that quickly get old. And when you’ve got an album that runs over 50 minutes long, that’s just tempting people to look for filler material that you could have cut.
In terms of the songwriting, the vocal tag-team of Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone seems a lot more reserved and even humbled on this record, at times giving us very honest glimpses into their interpersonal relationships and fears of losing (or perhaps even keeping) them, but decidedly pulling back from the politics and sex and occasional angry rants that gave their past work a bit of an edge. Even when this record decides to go all-out loud and proud for the duration of a song, there’s an odd sense of politeness to it, like some record exec was there in the studio kindly asking them to keep the syncopation under control and follow the metronome exactly and to not let anything messy or spontaneous happen. It may sound hypocritical for me to knock them for that, when there are plenty of other bands I enjoy a great deal who slave over note-perfect arrangements in the studio and who don’t really aim to say or do anything that might catch their audience off-guard or ruffle their feathers. With TVOTR, I guess I came to appreciate that slight sense of danger. Sometimes you don’t know what you’ll miss until it’s gone.
Seeds isn’t a bad record. I find myself listening to it quite a bit and humming choruses later on from songs that I didn’t think at first were all that memorable. It would probably be the easiest of their records for any non-TVOTR fan to get into, assuming your tastes run more mainstream than indie or avant-garde, at least. Being straightforward and poppy isn’t a bad thing. I just wish for a few more of those head-scratching moments that came up on their previous albums, where I find myself asking, “Why’d they do that and what does it mean?”
There is one big “Why’d they do that?” moment, and it happens literally in the first second of the first song. With no warning, you’re dropped right into what sounds like some sort of otherworldly ritual, with metallic noises a-clanging, hands a-clapping, and voices moaning rather atonally. (It turns out the “clanging” sound is a sample of guitarist/producer/all-around mad scientist David Sitek dropping a drumstick onto piano strings.) This can seem almost obnoxious at first, but it starts to make sense as soon as Tunde’s lead vocal comes in and you get the hang of the song’s melody. Underneath the weird, dissonant bits, it’s actually not that complicated or outlandish of a song – you expect it to escalate into chaos but instead it congeals into a steady groove that gives Tunde the spotlight for one of his better vocal performances, but that doesn’t quite fascinate me over the course of the entire song the way it does in those first few bars. Here, he seems torn between a deep devotion to someone he loves and calling it quits to save himself some stress. The lyrics ping-pong back and forth between sentiments of lifelong commitment (“Take me high, take me low/Take me nowhere my poor heart can’t follow/Reckless hearts soon collide/Break through a lifetime of stress and evil”) and near-apathy (“I should really give it up sometime/All I wanted was to love you better/But I should really give it up sometime.”) Kyp’s lower, mellower vocals underpin Tunde’s, and I enjoy the interplay between the two when they both play unique parts in the same song. But this one doesn’t quite get me going the way that “Second Song” or “Halfway Home” did on their last two albums.
2. Careful You
There’s a lot going for this song at first. Even though it progress as slowly and steadily as a lot of similar songs on this album, there’s something special about the snap and crackle of its beat – which is probably one of the better examples of high the group ties together elements of indietronica and R&B. I think Kyp sings lead on this one – his voice is a little lower and huskier than Tunde’s (at least when he’s not singing in falsetto), but I can’t always tell the two apart. The first few lyrics of the song are in French, which some might say is the most romantic language, and sure enough, those words translate to “Yes, I love you”. He’s pretty clearly head over heels for this woman, to the point where his declarations sound like the stuff of a band targeted at a much younger audience: “We learned the secret of a kiss/And how it melts away all pain.” I’m not knocking that – the sunny optimism is actually kind of refreshing, coming after some of the rather downbeat material on Nine Types of Light. And he approaches it with a sense of caution, wondering how deep into this relationship is too deep for her to handle, and doing his best to be sensible and ask if they should put on the brakes and figure out whether they’re on the same page. This is all great stuff so far, but the song bases its central hook on an atrocious pun, basically revolving around the words “Care for you” sounding a lot like “Careful you”. Exploring both of those sentiments in the same song is a good, honest thing to do, but leaving it to the not-so-clever wordplay to sum things up is just painful. I should know – I’ve inflicted my fair share of agonizing puns on people. But even I know the difference between the truly clever puns, the so-painfully-bad-they’re-hilarious puns, and the uncanny valley in between where people aren’t quite sure if you’re actually trying to be funny. That’s the stuff of McDonald’s and Subway ads. It shouldn’t be the stuff of musicians trying to make quality art. It also doesn’t help that the song doesn’t seem to know what to do with itself after two verses and choruses, leaving it to drag out longer than it feels like it should and end rather weakly on an uninspired bit of vocal pitch-shifting that doesn’t feel like it fits the mood of the song in any way.
3. Could You
The first truly up-tempo song on the album seems like it fits thematically after “Could You”, and here’s where the sunny sentiments about the newness of falling in love give way to a tougher, more experienced form of love – the ability to actually take care of someone and put your time, your money, your resources toward their well-being even when your own ego is telling you just to look out for #1. That’s what separates the men from the boys, in my opinion. The vocal exchange between Kyp and Tunde in this song seems to suggest a quarrel between the self-destructive side that wants to go out and party and become famous and blow all of the spoils on hedonistic pursuits, and the nurturing side that wants to man up for a change and make that special someone feel genuinely loved. There’s a pretty sweet horn section that shows up just to make it all sound more urgent, and for the first time on this record, they’ve brought back that disorienting but exhilarating feeling of classic soul and rock & roll and electronic dance influences all colliding. It’s not quite the party that “Golden Age” was, but this is one of those songs that really hits me where I live right now.
4. Happy Idiot
The more cynical side of TVOTR still has to come out from time to time, and it happens here on what might just be one of their most addictive singles yet. I can’t knock a record for being pop when it does so exceedingly well, and since they’ve almost gone full-on 80’s with a new wave beat and frenetic guitars to match, this one’s pretty much right up my alley. (At times I want to compare this one to MuteMath, but that’s not entirely accurate since the vocal approach here is much more subdued compared to the “rigorous workout” pace of the song.) This one was pretty clearly written in the wake of a bad breakup, and the poor sap who got left out in the cold has chosen to numb the pain in the worst way possible: “I’m gonna bang my head to the wall/Until I feel like nothing at all/I’m a happy idiot/To keep my mind off you.” It’s a rather dark spin on the notion that “ignorance is bliss”, but I don’t take it as advice – I just figure this was a phase the guy had to get through in order to start the process of truly getting over it.
5. Test Pilot
I like the slow syncopation of the programmed beat here, and the hazy guitars. They give it a bit of a “spacey” feel. Unfortunately those are among the few things this song really has going for it. It follows the template of starting off with something interesting and then just repeating it without doing much to build on it that bugs me so often throughout this album. Everything’s so evenly measured, and vocally, the guys don’t seem that passionate one way or the other about their analogy of a relationship as a scientific experiment. If you’re so upset about something not working that you’re tempted to smash it on the ground, and if you’re so nervous about whether your ramshackle aircraft will actually fly, how can this song sound so calm and collected and not all that exploratory? If ever there was a good reason for TVOTR to do something truly weird, it would be during a song on this topic. Instead they play it maddeningly safe, which make it get quite boring by the time its nearly five minutes are up.
6. Love Stained
Look alive, Jaleel Bunton! I feel like this is one of the few songs on this record where he does something with the drums aside from setting up a simple loop and then going to have a sandwich or something. The percussion is still very much electronic, but there’s a little bit of messiness to it, a feeling of everything being just-so-slightly off the beat, and while that could be disorienting, the mixture of computer precision and human error is actually kind of exciting. The vocal trade-off between Kyp and Tunde is far more engaging here, particularly on the pre-chorus, where the words seem to zip by so slickly that you have to stop for a second to take stock of what’s being said. The lyrics describe a rather messy relationship that gets consummated with the somewhat disturbing analogy of “Simulating bloodbaths in bed”. The sentiments in most of the song aren’t violent, so I’m guessing it’s more about two people’s hearts being open and willing to spill their guts to each other? Nope, that still sounds gross. But I’ll give ’em credit – a song about a messy relationship needs to sound messy, and this one fits the bill. I don’t fully understand it, but it’s fun to listen to.
Quite interestingly, the big long song smack dab in the middle of the record isn’t the sparse, drawn out ballad you would expect to show up at this point on a TV on the Radio record. It fakes you out quite cleverly by starting off with a very slow intro of piano, strings, and bells, but then this awesomely, unapologetically upbeat rhythm kicks in and suddenly the band is flying high, and they maintain that downright happy mood for the rest of the song. It would be an immediate triumph for the band if the lyrics weren’t amateur hour through and through. There’s no cliche about taking the ride of your life left unturned here, and a lot of the rhyme schemes are so elementary that I’m kind of embarrassed for them. There are lots of bands I’d look to for no other reason than to make engaging, high energy electronic pop music that has no pretense of being deep, and I’d probably enjoy a song like this more coming from one of those bands. And I don’t want to knock TVOTR for giving us the welcome surprise of a little unbridled optimism. It just feels like they’re really dumbing things down in order to give us that.
8. Right Now
While we’re on the topic of songs that are memorable for their intros but not for much else, the cheery Christmas bells at the beginning of this one certainly qualify. Once the peppy, danceable beat kicks in and Tunde starts off the first verse with “I see you praying on the dance floor/I see you moving so inspired”, I’m quite intrigued to hear more, because piety and sweet dance moves aren’t the sort of thing most songwriters would think to juxtapose. (Madonna‘s taken a few cracks at it, I think.) But for all of the fun that he seems to have singing this song and exploring that character’s soulful, carefree attitude, it’s quite disappointing that the whole thing dissolves into a tired “Live for the moment”-type cliche with a repetitive chorus in which I can barely make out whatever Kyp is mumbling behind Tunde’s endless “Right now”s. This one’s surface-level catchy, but there’s not a whole lot about it past that strong beginning that really inspires me.
I love, love, love the big, loud, and downright dirty guitar sound that gets this song’s motor running. It jumps right out at you on a record where honestly not a lot of things do at first. It’s very much a “three chords and the truth” sort of approach at first, with Tunde half-singing and half-shouting the lyrics, and the rest of the band not even coming in until a good minute or so into the song. When they do is when things get disappointing, because Jaleel’s got a very even, measured, and programmed drum beat that doesn’t fit the attitude of the song at all. It’s at like half the speed that the raucous guitar playing would seem to suggest, and you expect this to develop into something much livelier and messier, but they just coast on it for the entire rest of the song, which to me feels like a huge waste of potential. The lyrics aren’t bad here – they seem to be on the topic of wanting to stay with someone through the good and bad, even if it includes the ugly, sleet-drenched winter seasons of life. A few lines like “There’s a union in the afterglow” help it to rise above the din of love song cliches, but when you think about it, they don’t really match the mood of the music, which makes me suspect that they just really wanted to use that dirty guitar sound after stumbling across it in the studio, and they just shoehorned it into a song they’d already written.
The band sort of goes punk on this track, which is probably the most uptempo thing on the album. This time every member is in agreement about hammering the song out at breakneck speed, and they’re probably living out their fantasy of being The Ramones for a few minutes, but with some computerized bits and horn sounds thrown into the mix, because it wouldn’t be TVOTR if it wasn’t somehow mish-mashing different genres together. The lyrics are the sort of psychedelic silliness you’d expect from a rock band in the 60’s: “Four thousand years ago/I came back to my senses/Jumped on a laser ray/And blew into a new dimension.” But I get the impression that they’re meant to be a bunch of goofy fun, and they don’t really have to make a whole lot of sense. And it’s good to hear the group committing to that, and injecting a much-needed shot of energy into an album that was otherwise rapidly losing my interest.
Honestly, they might as well have left this one as a B-side, given how long this record is getting and how little it needs another mild-mannered, repetitive mid-tempo song padding things out as it wears on inexorably towards its end. It’s nice to hear TVOTR strumming acoustic guitars for a change, but they do nothing interesting with the instrument, and Bunton lays down yet another dull, squishy drum loop that somehow manages to suck the energy out of the song. Their attitude is more pessimistic here, despite quoting Bobby McFerrin‘s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” in the chorus. It comes across as a failed mantra due to how loaded down with anxiety the rest of the song seems to be. Which may be the point – that he’s telling himself there’s no need to worry but not managing to convince himself. The song falls into an uncomfortable middle ground where its riffing on the song that inspired it is neither genuinely inspiring nor wittily sarcastic, which renders inert whatever message it might be trying to convey.
The title track, one final entry in the unremarkably mid-tempo department, does at least have more of a lively beat going for it, and a chorus that I find myself humming later, even if it’s too awkwardly phrased to be as big of a sing-along as it clearly wants to: “Rain comes down, like it always does, this time I’ve got seeds on ground.” (Really? You guys were hurting that much for space to insert syllables that leaving out “the” sounded like it would made it flow better? Whatever.) The story is oddly specific about the beginnings of a relationship given how much of this album seems to be about commitment and seeing a long-term romance through to the end – a guy’s got the hots for some girl, but she’s recently chewed up and spit out her last boyfriend, so he’s a bit unsure of how to approach her. He confides in the girl’s sister, who advises him to take it slow. So this idea of “seeds on ground”, I suppose, is meant to represent a subtle rather than a direct approach to moving in on her. This sounds an awful lot more like a beginning than an end to me, but then I consider how other songs like “Happy Idiot” seem to be out of order as well, and I give up on finding a cohesive narrative that may not have been intended in the first place. There might be some deeper meaning that I’m missing here, but it just doesn’t feel like this one wraps up a nearly 50-minute listening experience in a satisfying way, and that’s disappointing considering the huge exclamation marks that “Lover’s Day” and “Caffeinated Consciousness” were at the end of their last two records.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Careful You $1
Could You $1.75
Happy Idiot $2
Test Pilot $.50
Love Stained $1.25
Right Now $.50
Tunde Adebimpe: Lead vocals, loops
Kyp Malone: Lead vocals, guitars, bass, loops
David Andrew Sitek: Guitars, keyboards, loops
Jaleel Bunton: Drums, backing vocals, loops, guitars
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: