Judging by the activity on the blog about “Golden Age”, there’s a fair amount of excitement about TV On The Radio’s “Dear Science”. And, now that I’ve heard the album properly a few times, I reckon it’s pretty justified: this is the best record the band have made by a mile.
I’m going to start by quoting our regular French penfriend, Baptiste, who posted this about “Dear Science” on the “Golden Age” blog. “ It is way more ambitious and broad than ‘Return’… (which I liked btw),” he writes. “Strings and horns, more concise songs, a fuller band , more grief than anger I’d say (even though anger is kind of grief), more soul-ish, I guess, less martial (still, there’s a sort of drum’n’bass song). They move on, that’s for sure.”
I’d agree with most of that, though it seems a hugely angry album to me, and I wasn’t personally a huge fan of “Return To Cookie Mountain”. That record seemed to me prey to David Sitek’s worst excesses: the obsessive layering, a certain overdone aesthetic which often came close to smothering the songs. While the rich complexities of TV On The Radio are still vividly apparent on “Dear Science”, there’s also some space there. You can pick out individual instruments much more easily this time, which as Baptiste points out, heightens our awareness of the fantastic musicianship; there isn’t so much of that glutinous, super-processed merging of sounds.
Then of course there’s the increased funkiness, which’ll be readily apparent to anyone who’s heard “Golden Age”. In his fascinating interview with the band in the current Uncut, Peter Shapiro describes “Dear Science” as the work of an Afro-punk-disco band with axes to grind and butts to shake,” which is very good. What’s striking, though, is the way they re-invent various bits of the ‘80s in ways that are not quite like their other Brooklyn/discopunk contemporaries – like, for instance, how they graft Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” onto a Bowie vamp for “Golden Age”.
Their old chum Bowie is a prized influence here, so much so that the usual Peter Gabriel reference that has haunted TV On The Radio from day one seems rather superseded. “Stork & Owl” is a tremulous, opulent ballad that could just about have fitted on to “Scary Monsters”. But even there, there’s so much else going on: as my colleague Phil points out, there’s something of Prince’s freaked balladry circa “Sign O’ The Times” here, too.
The first three tracks of “Dear Science”, meanwhile, are just about as strong as any start to an album I’ve heard this year. “Halfway Home” has barbershop harmonies that conjure up a sort of gothic, gilded “Surfin’ Bird”, but the overheated synths and voluptuous chorus melody remind me vaguely of one of their predecessors at 4AD, Ultra Vivid Scene. “Crying” is one of the album’s most potent funk tracks (up there with the vibrant mix of Stax horns, Afrobeat rhythms, wiry New York punk-funk guitars and righteous invective that is “Red Dress”), where the weak – in a good way – rhythm guitar is pitched somewhere between the Family Stone and, since it’s more clipped and less sloppy, someone like A Certain Ratio or Quando Quango, maybe.
Finally, track three, “Dancing Choose”, fires up an overdriven, drum’n’bass-related breakbeat, then finds one of the singers – Tunde Adebimpe, I think, but he and Kyp Malone flit round each other so much this time round that it’s not always easy for me to identify who’s taking the lead – spit-rapping in the style of a hyper-modernised “Subterranean Homesick Blues” or, perhaps more accurately, “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It”. Superb, exciting music.
In this context, baroque ballad constructs like “Family Tree” take longer to bed in. But this is an album with myriad nuances and details to investigate once the initial dazzling punch has worn off. As “Dear Science” goes on, it sometimes feels like the patented Sitek mist is descending again. But on, say, “DLZ”, the intimidating closeness is undercut with a new ferocity and focus. They’ve been in this territory before, but never so successfully.
Ditto the finale, “Lover’s Day”, which revisits that martial vibe that Baptiste suggested was played down this time. Sitek really piles it on here, so that it seems like a marching band of Brooklyn bohemians are heading, enraged but with deadly purpose, towards the Whitehouse. But again, the definition is sharper, the tune stronger (a touch of “When Doves Cry”, maybe?), the cumulative effect overwhelming in a dynamic rather than delirious way. It makes “Dear Science” feel like a fabulously ambitious call to arms, rather than an over-elaborate trinket. One for the end-of-year lists, I reckon, then. . .