25 Masterworks: TV on the Radio – Dear Science

My Spin on Masterworks: 4 of 25

TV on the Radio

Dear Science

4AD, 2008

TV on the Radio - Dear Science

I’ve got absolutely no idea why the members of TV on the Radio chose to christen themselves with that particular name, but whatever the original reason(s), it’s a title perfectly suited to the characteristics of the group. Among other things, the phrase “TV on the Radio” brings hybridity to mind: the merging of distinct but not altogether incompatible materials, and how such a synthesis can spawn bold, bizarre, and fascinating outcomes.

These notions carry straight through to the heart of the band’s output thus far: nothing quite fits within the contours of a single expectation. The quartet (formerly a quintet, prior to the sad passing of Gerald Smith in 2011) seem to work with a thrilling telepathy, constantly swapping instrumental duties and writing credits, while keeping the fruits of their labour taut and focused. At the band’s best, every component gels so perfectly that each shift and movement sounds totally organic; the product of a singular consciousness rather than as a composite of several individual minds.

It’s this concept of making the familiar seem fresh and invigorating which is most pertinent when considering Dear Science. TV on the Radio have always dealt with purposeful subject matter, demonstrating proficiency for serving up apocalyptic showcases, which somehow sidestep pomposity and instead emerge spiky, sharp, and sexy. The technique was mastered for 2006’s Return to Cookie Mountain, but where that record cloaked itself in a raw scuzziness, Dear Science is scrubbed up; its equally weighty topics polished to a clean sheen. And even though the group’s rougher edges are now smoothed-out, the heart and soul of the project continues to push its way to the fore, exhibited in every croon, caterwaul, and gasp of dual vocalists Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone.

And there’s a lot of gutsiness to be found in these 50 minutes, as the lofty themes of life, death, war, love and loss are refracted through a 21st Century lens. In a sense, Dear Science offers an aural interpretation of the Book of Revelation, shaken awake to witness the era of the Bush administration, post-9/11 anxiety, and destructively compulsive consumerism. These quasi-religious touches echo through the parable-esque songwriting which peppers the album, with near-Biblical references even creeping into song titles. The dusky allegory of ‘Stork & Owl’ is particularly significant and breathtaking, with Malone’s wrenching examination of death caressed by tiptoeing keyboard figures and strings which sigh like branches in a breeze. Then there’s the chorus of the punchy ‘Red Dress’, which namechecks white robes and the whore of Babylon, while directing a furious gaze at a backdrop of war and slavery.

What develops is a tension between traditional faith and scientific fact, channelled into a sense of exasperation at failing to find solutions in such a dislocated age. It’s typified in the album’s title, which was taken from a note scribbled by Dave Sitek in the studio:

“Dear Science, please start curing people and solving problems or shut the fuck up.”

TV on the Radio, circa 2008 (l-r: Tunde Adebimpe, Dave Sitek, Kyp Malone, Gerald Smith, Jaleel Bunton)

TV on the Radio, circa 2008 (l-r: Tunde Adebimpe, Dave Sitek, Kyp Malone, Gerald Smith, Jaleel Bunton)

The band’s music meets this tension head-on, entrenching hybridity once more by heightening their genre-mashing tendencies, drawing on alt-rock, hip-hop, soul and funk, and throwing in euphoric fanfares of horns, strings, and synths for good measure. ‘Dancing Choose’ slaloms with élan through a rapid-fire barrage of 21st Century snapshots (personal favourite: “angry young mannequin – American apparently”), its furious glee perhaps the noughties’ best response to R.E.M.’s ‘It’s the End of the World as We Know it (And I Feel Fine)’.

And while they might not feel entirely “fine”, TV on the Radio are still able to hold onto hope in the face of overbearing hardships. Most revealing is ‘Shout Me Out’, which deals with despondency but refuses to be defeatist, instead kicking into high gear with surging positivity. Such fist-pumping releases can be found throughout Dear Science: ‘Crying’ bounces from one sprightly hook to the next, grounded in a guitar line which could make anyone shit holy balls of funk. Then there’s the fizzing, anthemic ‘Golden Age’, and the grand finale ‘Lover’s Day’, which closes the whole opus with a tribute to the redemptive power of mind-blowingly good sex.

Consequently, Dear Science is just as fun as it is timely, thanks in large part to the band’s renewed sonic template. While Adebimpe and Malone ooze warm charisma, it’s their bandmate and producer Dave Sitek who keeps everything in check. He ensures the bulky themes of Dear Science don’t capsize the music itself, and as such, Sitek is this album’s ace in the hole, ensuring that every single second gleams with crispness and colour, thus allowing the whole thing to glide by with effortless poise.

This resultant palatability is integral to the central appeal of Dear Science; the fact that amid all the fear and confusion which its authors dissect, it revels in the joy of life itself, and the exaltation beyond the hardships. By crisscrossing between faith and disillusionment, TV on the Radio attempt to navigate contemporary angst, while firmly reassuring us that a golden age will come around again, someday. And even though this portent might not prove correct (something the band themselves are more than aware of), it at least provides us with a glimmer of hope that we should try to cling onto – at least until science can get its shit together.

Dear Science
1 – Halfway Home
2 – Crying
3 – Dancing Choose
4 – Stork & Owl
5 – Golden Age
6 – Family Tree
7 – Red Dress
8 – Love Dog
9 – Shout Me Out
10 – DLZ
11 – Lover’s Day
 

24/03/2014

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Posted on March 24, 2014, in 25 Masterworks, The Music World and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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