TV on the Radio: “Dear Science,”

It’s the drumming that stands out first. The strings are fantastic, the horns downright sublime, and David Sitek orchestrates all of it into a monstrously thrilling, symphonic rock opus, but it’s Jaleel Bunton’s work on the skins that gives TV on the Radio’s Dear Science, its heart– or at least its pulse. He dips liberally into the wells of jazz, funk old-school R&B, and the most glorious species of arena rock you’ve ever heard. He lays down a cheerfully insistent, ethnic-flavored cadence on the majestic opener, “Halfway Home,” he unleashes a furious, full-frontal funk attack on “Red Dress,” and he keeps perfect hip-hop time on the rambling screed “Dancing Choose.” His slinky hi-hat helps turn “Crying” into the great lost Prince single, and his marital snare makes “Lover’s Day” into a joyfully courageous parade, right down the main street of Hell.

In other words, Sitek, Bunton and associates aren’t returning to Cookie Mountain on their latest record– they’re dancing right past it. It’s not that they’ve lightened up– they didn’t really need to– or somehow aren’t taking things seriously anymore. Their hearts and minds are in the same place they’ve always been, but this time, the balance has shifted. On Return to Cookie Mountain, they hammered their diverse and disparate influences– Bowie, Prince, Radiohead, jazz and soul, pop and prog-rock– into an aching, wounded and majestic art-rock gem, an album that was as experimental as it was addictive. Here, they take all of those artier impulses and channel them through their pop sensibilities, and the resulting album sounds for all the world like the one they’ve been trying to make since their inception. It’s bold and uncompromising in its vision. It pushes the envelope of pop music forward more than anything they’ve ever done. And it’s a helluva lot of fun. Though it’s less cerebral and esoteric than the last one, it’s still an album of uncommon intelligence and innovation; and though it’s smarter and more sophisticated than almost any other pop album you could think of in 2008, it’s an album that hits at the gut, music you can feel on your skin.

Call them crazy if you want, but the men of TV on the Radio are terribly serious about the business of pop music. Very few bands are as confident in their identity or as assertive of their vision as this one, and that’s never been truer than it is here, despite the fact that it’s positively thriving with big hooks and irresistible beats. It’s a towering artistic statement, but it’s also a terrifically exciting and engrossing pop record. Give credit here to the beating pulse of Bunton’s drumming, but also to Tunde Adibempe; if TVotR’s drummer is the blood in their veins, their singer surely must be their soul. He’s our narrator through this sonic wonderland, and he’s equally adept at laying on the R&B swagger with his Prince-style falsetto (“Crying”), spitting out an “… End of the World as We Know It”-type tirade (“Dancing Choose”), and, of course, acting as our tour guide, sage, and fellow traveler, sojourning through all manner of darkness but tirelessly testifying to the light.

And there is a lot of darkness here– if this is a party record, it’s for a party at the end of the world. Adibempe still sounds like he’s crooning from the front lines, and the sense of urgency they cultivated on the last album carries over to this one. But the enemy isn’t a particular nation or culture, not a politician or a political party; the stakes are much higher than any of that. The darkness here comes from living in a time when Truth itself is under attack, and love is either pushed to the borders or turned into something unrecognizable. (As Joe Henry puts it, “what will pass for mercy now, we practice unforgivingly.”) And so Tv on the Radio sings of the death-dealing forces of our fallen world with lethal precision, but they’re not just doomsayers; aside from U2, no band even comes close to speaking to our ever-darkening world with the kinds of spiritual fervor and real hope that this one does. Even as the hour draws late and our culture accepts complacency, love is championed as something real and redemptive, something that spurs us into action. Love isn’t mere sentimentality here– it’s real, it’s active, it makes a difference.

Perhaps that’s why TV on the Radio is so convincing on the album opener, “Halfway Home,” when they pick up the euphoric guitars of U2 and the pulsing worldbeat of Peter Gabriel— in essence stealing the mantle of the world’s best art-rock band. They’re not being pretentious; they’ve earned it. Always so much more than the sum of their influences– even here, when they tone down the Bowie and crank up the Prince– this is a band with a vision that’s unflagging and unstoppable, a band that sees the sun setting in the distance but refuses to believe that it has to be that way. And so they fight back, the only way they know how– with a killer, relentlessly stylish and assured pop album that’s a pleasure from start to finish, thus proving that art matters now as much as ever. So take them seriously– because they are serious– when they sing of our inherited wickedness, swinging from “the gallows of our family tree,” because they know the kind of thing we’re up against. But take them just as seriously when they sing of a different, better path– a “Golden Age” of miracles and wonders, a genuine spiritual alternative to the darkness so many other bands toil in. This is a band that doesn’t just know the power of music, the power of love– they know the importance of hope. And if the drums are what make them so much fun, the hope is what makes them so essential.

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