Ending with a Comma: TV on the Radio’s Dear Science,

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dear_scienceRating: "Desert island essential, but it will make you miss the city, the love, and the war."

Although I do happen to think that to start a review with a tale about the first exposure to the material being reviewed is a cliché (and reflexively indicating that it is indeed a cliché, being a worse kind of cliché – guilty as charged), there’s something to be said about this situation, a situation which results in a pseudo-conundrum: The longevity of an artist and the relationship of the audience of said artist’s art suggests a certain kind of mortality for its faithful audience, informing him of the time that has passed, evaporated, vanished between his own personal relationship with the artist. Imagine being around when Guernica was first unveiled, or having watched Dylan when he first went electric -- and reflecting on either of these scenarios when Picasso joined the choir invisible and Dylan made a deal with Jesus: It would undoubtedly result in a long, reflective sigh and checking on your watch to see how much time you have on this earth. Or, well, maybe not.

When my good friend Jason Fox (the dedicated Steve's Word reader might recognize him from the Gloucester Homeless Guy sketch) decided to use TV On The Radio's "Young Liars," (off their 2003 EP of the same name) in a photo essay for a film class I shared with him; I was immediately hooked. I wasn't in Williamsburg when OK Calculator was recorded and handed-out (somehow for a DIY album, I don’t have the heart to use the word “released”) at their shows, but Young Liars got to me. It was the patient, stoic drum beat (which, from what I gather was a drum machine back then and not the awesome Jaleel Bunton) immediately followed by an organ and chanting, alluding to a funeral where the co-lead singer Tunde Adebimbe was the pallbearer, carrying the coffin of some disenchanted young generation that imploded into itself. My college run, full of idealism, hope and wonders, was somewhat summarized by Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes (2004) and my post-collegiate life, in which all the antonyms of these words were honored to their full extent, was accompanied by Return To Cookie Mountain (2006).  Now we have Dear Science, with the comma and all.

What’s so striking about the first song "Halfway Home" (which Adebimbe rather half-heartedly has stated in an interview was about the passing of a couple of individuals of importance to him and a gentle farewell to them) is the immediacy.  Once again, the band arrives fully formed, the music, the production, the lyrics all shine with an inviting significance impossible to ignore.  Adepimbe and vocalist/guitarist Kyp Malone, like any good poet, have an almost Leonard Cohen-like obsession with writing hard-hitting lyrics that are poignant and eloquent yet never overly sentimental or pretentious. Although their voices are distinguishable, their words are not -- they seem to have one hand on each other's pulse, and the other on that of the era they're living in -- which does say something about the unity within their entire band as well. When their diligently precise rhyme patterns suddenly blend into free verses, it feels fucking deserved. Add the explosive crescendo of "Halfway Home" to this and one emerges from the first five minutes of the album exhausted but rewarded.

TV on the Radio's gift for writing small, personal songs as well as extensive ones about the times and their craftsmanship at combining these two spheres lead me to refer to them as the American Radiohead (the self-reference of title of their aforementioned DIY album notwithstanding), a reference that might both be quite appropriate and a total sin, but there I said it. The next two tracks combine the personal with the public and provide an observant human reaction without ever coming across as the work of, heaven forbid, a "protest" band. Is Kyp Malone "Crying" for the deeds of an administration that has been “fucking the future in the face” for the last eight years (as guitarist/producer David Andrew Sitek ever-so-eloquently put in the Amoeba Music interview)? Take "Dancing Choose" -- the song could be about anyone from a selfish Lehman Brothers executive to our favorite Decider. But the way Adebimbe sings it like it's the end of the world as we know it and he's NOT feeling fine, it becomes about all of them.

With "Family Tree" the line blurs even more: The gorgeous lyrics don't recall so much a double-meaning except seeking acceptance from the in-laws-to-be of the narrator Adepimbe, but his comforting presence in the recent Jonathan Demme movie Rachel Getting Married and asks us to redefine context: Can one only adhere to the album itself to process this song, or is it a part of a larger scheme?  There is a particular moment in the film, when he comforts Anne Hathaway's character by hugging her before he exits the frame (if it doesn't warm your heart, you don't have one), that recalls distinctly the aura of this song. His sheer presence, whether on film, on stage singing with his eyes rolling all the way back or behind the camera (an NYU film school graduate, he animated the spectacular "Pin" video for Yeah Yeah Yeahs) is just undeniable. That said, it would be a shame not to mention the extra-curricular activities of his fellow bandmates, such as the gung-ho A-list record producer David Andrew Sitek (Foals – a rather eventful session from what I hear, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Liars, Scarlet Johansson, Celebration) and the guester/producer Kyp Malone (Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson). As for the rhythm section (term used loosely) of Jaleel Bunton and Gerard Smith, they might just be too busy redefining the word backbone for the time being. 

The inclusion of the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra as a horn section among the dense production of Sitek provides an earthly familiarity on tape. Their horns gleefully accompany Dear Science's first single "Golden Age", the music video of which, among other things, includes images of cops dancing like they're protesting Prop 8 on a mountaintop and a golden guitar that refers to the thinly veiled Prince aspirations of the song. According to the NY Times interview with lyricist Kyp Malone, it's song about utopia, and his anthem-esque lyrics don't hold back: "Now we're all allowed to breathe/Walls dissolve/With the hunger and the greed/Move your body/You've got all you need/And your arms in the air stir a sea of stars/And oh here it comes and it's not so far". The melody is so convincing and catchy that it wouldn't even require the lyrics, but man it's such a joy to sing-along with him, especially now with the Obama victory and all, and truly to believe it for five minutes. With that, all the zeitgeist-defining hype surrounding the band surrenders itself, once again, to the music. TV on the Radio becomes just a band that makes you feel good.

Just as the beginning of the album, the last two songs merge the individual with the communal – in "DLZ", Adebimbe shout-sings, “Nevermind – death professor!/If love is life, my love is better!” The meaning of death professor as a malevolent world leader is obvious and relevant – as if Adebimpe is pointing at the naked evil king’s little weenie and calling him out on it, but the use of simple language such as “better love” could’ve sounded so heavy-handed under the craftsmanship of a less-skilled lyricist. Like "Halfway Home," it’s an exhausting but rewarding song, that leads to “Lover’s Day”, which answers all the questions that "Wear You Out" once asked in Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes. It’s not simply about fornicating, making sweet love, or having sex – it’s about Fucking with a capital F – but with passion and love; while encouraging the neighbors to do the same. That's what the comma in the title might as well stand for – as long as that passion and love exists, we might just be alright in the end. Our fate will not be cut short with a period, but will continue with a comma. Because we're worth it. At least I hope we are.

Sinan G. writes reviews of all kinds for Steve's Word. He writes inebriated, sober, happy, depressed and uses as many dependent clauses and parenthetical phrases as possible. He often wears different hats when he writes. This review was accompanied by at least three different hats, once of which is organic wool and has a pink interior. It's an awesome hat. I love that hat.

6 Comments

  • 1

    "Fucking with a capital F"

    well, mr. S, that was a Fucking great record review.

  • 2

    Sinan. You rule. "Wear You Out" isn't on Return to Cookie Mountain, it's on Young Liars too.

  • 3

    whoops, the Desperate Youth album, I mean.

  • 4

    That's true -- I mixed up "Wear You Out" & "Wash The Day". Editors can take care of this if they so please.

  • 5

    HOT HOT P-TOTT!

    I'm'a say it, this is a true revue. Bosely Bosely Bop

  • 6

    What?

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