TV on the Radio has been firmly held in the arms of fans and critics alike since the post-punk group put every cent they had into their 2003 demo, “OK Calculator.” The demo is characterized by the uneasiness that could only stem from the act of producing unknown music from an equally unknown indie rocker’s Brooklyn loft. Although good fortune in the form of some stellar reviews quickly granted the group some security, they never wavered from their signature TVOTR sound. Their jittery resonance is the seed for their uniquely manufactured angsty optimism.
This approach seems nonsensical to most, but the TVOTR dichotomy has failed to fall short of genius; Tunde Adebimpe’s lead vocals possess an intriguing sense of emptiness while his lyrics maintain an immense density. It’s a concept that’s difficult to imagine, but a quick listen to the 2004 release “Staring at the Sun” or “Killer Crane” off their 2011 album “Nine Types of Light” makes TVOTR easy to digest for listeners. TVOTR’s trademark sound has allowed their music to touch on both the beginning and end of optimistic love as well as political hope and the bitter lack of self-control on the opposite end of the spectrum.
The newly released “Seeds” represents a slight departure from the five caffeinated precursors, but this doesn’t mean they have lost their “je ne sais quoi.” The album is smoother, and therefore more accessible, but I wouldn’t say “accessibility” was explicitly written on the to-do list for producer and guitarist David Sitek. The album marks the first release by TVOTR since 2011, and more importantly, the first release since the death of the group’s bassist Gerard Smith. The death of their band mate has indeed marked a shift in the group’s dynamic, but I don’t think it’s a shift meant to “lower the stakes,” as Pitchfork magazine suggested. Sure, the change in sound means you can sink your teeth into the music without chipping your canines, but the songs still sound like they’re coming straight from a group diary that no one was supposed to read. The TVOTR essence is still there, regardless of how smooth it’s coming across in the new album.
Just listen to the album’s first track “Quartz.” The honest Tunde Adebimpe vocals open the song with the question “How much do I love you?” Backed by the repetitive chants layered on the track, this poignant line leads listeners into the unknown. The chorus, beginning with the line “I should really give it up sometime,” is rather silky, but the following line, “should’ve known by the way things started,” reveals the dichotomy that has become so strongly tied to the band. That final inflection on “started” is taunting; you hear Adebimpe questioning himself. The lyrical, and auditory pattern of the song parallels this internal conflict, and yes, maintains TVOTR’s famous perturbed tone. Mood rings everywhere rapidly change color as the song moves from the realization that one should “give it up” to the poetic praise of love, “I am yours, you are mine.” If that doesn’t put you on edge, the song’s final taper out into haunting echoes of “Rollin down the way into the fire” undoubtedly will.
My favorite song off the album, “Careful You” follows the lead of the opening track; there is something so perfect about the way the vocals mirror the lyrics themselves. The gentle vocals over the hypnotic background communicate the never-ending trance of feeling in love. The last lines of the first verse, “there is a softness to your touch, there is a wonder to your ways,” are sang in a harmony that reflects this familiar feeling: soft, and wondrous. The desperation lent to the chorus, which consists of a series of questions, landed me right back into the diary of the band, which seems to speak out to their late band member.
The vocal overlays and upbeat guitar in “Could You,” were catchy, but this isn’t my first choice when it comes to TVOTR atmosphere. “Happy Idiot,” on the other hand masters a cool upbeat angst. This song, which speaks of keeping “my mind off you” and “shut [ting] it off,” captures that moment of frenzy before utter defeat. Indeed, the “happy idiot” is losing control.
“Test Pilot” is a mellow track with an atmosphere that gives it a lot of angles, keeping it from being a typical heartbreak anthem; in fact, it’s far from that. TVOTR keeps you guessing throughout the track until the lyrics finish strong with the line, “we are high and we are fine.” In the song “Ride,” the band manufactures a build that evokes TVOTR’s shock factor. Those other three guys in the group (the talented David Sitek, Kyp Malone and Jeleel Bunton) carry the song with instrumentals until the vocals enter around three minutes in. This mellow beginning makes the anticipation for the vocals undeniably fun for listeners. Similarly, the song “Right Now” speaks of letting go and joining the revolution; the beat itself is pretty revolutionary in the context of the album.
The grungy guitar of “winter” and “Lazzeray” bring a change of pace that once again proves that the “TVOTR-ness” of past works is very much alive. Following the grunge is the track “trouble.” Yes, this song is a lot easier to digest than a lot of their early work, but it’s a perfect match for the message “everything’s going to be okay.” The only way I can think to describe the final track “seeds” is well, sweet.
The more approachable flow of “Seeds” is a change from the band’s 2001 debut, but it certainly isn’t a simplification of their unique vibe. Of course, tracks like “seeds” and “could you” wouldn’t fit on the groups’s 2004 album, “Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes,” but the group is still questioning the manner in which feelings should be expressed, just as they’ve always done. TVOTR is currently on tour in Europe, so if you’re abroad next semester, try to make it to a show; the unique TVOTR energy doesn’t fall short.