TV on the Radio: “Nine Types of Light”
How you you follow up a dance party at the edge of the world? Why, by moving things from the battlefield to the bedroom, of course. TV on the Radio’s last album, Dear Science, felt like love’s last stand in the face of the apocalypse, its furious funk and soulful rock fueled by election year urgency and transforming it into something akin to Sign O’ the Times for the Age of Obama. The Brooklyn band obviously poured everything they had into it; it remains their greatest achievement to date, and it so thoroughly wiped them out that it lead to a year-long hiatus in which many of us were afraid we’d heard the last of them. But their return to recording is oh so sweet; Nine Types of Light feels like the natural cooldown that Dear Science demanded, a set of luxuriously warm and romantic songs that are leaner and less art-damaged than anything the group has ever done– and heavier on slow jams, too.
And it’s not just the music itself that’s different. The songwriting here largely abandons the big-picture urgency of past TV on the Radio albums in favor of disarming intimacy. These are love songs, plain and simple, and they’re both sexy and surprisingly tender. Indeed, you expect to hear love songs this warm and this intimate in soul music, maybe, but not in indie rock. I should say, though, that the progression from revolution rock to lover’s rock isn’t an unnatural one by any stretch. On Return to Cookie Mountain, love was empowering– the “province of the brave,” we were told. On Dear Science love was a cause for celebration even as the world seemed like it might still slip into disaster. On Nine Types of Light, love is the force that binds our hearts together, even when the world is falling apart.
Indeed, anarchy still nips at the edges of this thing, but where the TV on the Radio of Dear Science might have flung their doors wide open to meet trouble head-on, this year’s model bars the them shut; the chaos of the surrounding world informs this record but love remains the focus. The album’s first song is actually called “Second Song,” suggestive, perhaps, of a second shot, a new dawn. The opening does indeed play like a redemption song, the sound of daybreak– and then it erupts into what might be the leanest, funkiest rock song they’ve ever done. It isn’t the sound of defiance so much as joy; love remains, even when all else is falling apart, and the “Lover’s Day” celebration that closed Dear Science sounds like it’s still going strong. That said, this album is as much about the moments of quiet tenderness as it is the rock songs, and “Keep Your Heart” might be the band’s sweetest to date– an affirmation of fidelity and care even as all the edges of this place start to fray.
Nine Types of Light is nothing if not a natural evolution from the albums that came before it; indeed, while the initial temptation is to say that the band has abdicated its political and prophetic role, I’d say they’re simply offering their follow-through. And might I add that I appreciate what they’re doing: There’s a time and a place for anthems, for soapboxes, and for shouting at the world to get its shit together, but there’s also a time and a place for stepping back and realizing that love really is the answer, and that it starts not on a political scale but on an individual one. TV on the Radio has always written songs about love; now, they’re showing us what it really means.
And just as they continue to scale things down with their lyrics, so, too, are they paring down the TV on the Radio sound. This band’s recordings have always been about the tension between art and rock; their earliest albums found strains of funk and soul trying to break free of art-rock gauze, and Return to Cookie Mountain was itself a masterpiece of wobbly, fractured pop. Dear Science found anthems lurking beneath the art, and Nine Types of Light loses the Brooklyn weirdness altogether in favor of the leanest, most physical and accessible album they’ve made. It’s a natural progression; the band has always been special because of the deep soul they bring to indie rock, and this album positively luxuriates in warmth and romance. The rockers are lean and hard-hitting– even when they get in touch with their inner Pixies on “Caffeinated Consciousness,” it’s more noteworthy for its energy than for anything else– and the slower numbers are gentle, open, and emotionally generous. “Second Song,” with its pastoral build-up and horn-laden crescendos, is a production wonder, the best-sounding thing David Sitek has yet concocted.
“Caffeinated Consciousness,” by the way, ends the album, and not with the same cathartic resolution as “Lover’s Day,” but with pure mayhem and fervor. It’s as though the band is making it clear that they’re still in fighting form, the relatively low-key nature of Nine Types of Light not a sign of a softening, but of a sharpening. I’m not even sure that the convincing was necessary. If the album lack the urgency of the ones that came before it, it’s not necessarily any less satisfying because of it, and instead seems to mark the beginning of a sweet new day for a band that continues to inspire.