TV on the Radio

Return to Cookie Mountain

(4AD; 2006)

By Amir Nezar | 31 December 2007

Recently in TIME was an article with the none-too-keen observation that “our” generation – whatever that is – suffers from the absence of a literary Voice, a young talent whose prose serves as a social, communal benchmark. The article is to some degree conscious of its own preposterousness, noting that writers who were the “voice of their generations,” like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Salinger, wrote about a selective social experience (usually white, relatively wealthy, or expatriated) and to a relatively limited audience. It also importantly points out that a generation’s Voice is not necessarily its best writer. Nevertheless, the article was a failure due to its dependence on back-of-the-book idiom. The Voice of a Generation is a monumental abstraction of a cliché, the kind of empty rhetorical device that vacantly beams hand in hand with the sunny, sounds-nice-let’s-use-it conclusion of the article: there may not be one Voice, but there are many singing in harmony. That, by the way, was one of the hallmarks of Soviet socialist realism.

TV on the Radio does not sing in harmony with other bands. Even its internal vocal harmonies are terribly tenuous, fractured planes meticulously failing to find a perfect meeting place. The band’s aural spaces are similarly conflicted, disheveled shard mosaics, moving from major key piano progressions into yawning crackling swathes of noise. The cleanest figures are perpetually undercut with grimy sonic thunderstrokes. Its thematic hope is inextricable from its thematic struggle, a suitable hurrah finding a hollow echo in the abyss. Looking at the lyric sheet of Return to Cookie Mountain yields an ineffable sense of the difficulty of interpersonal communication with which this band struggles, how communication is, after all, violent. There are often two people involved, and they are almost always at odds at the same time at which they are trying to surmount the odds. Walls (of noise) are everywhere, around and between voices. With an emotional ice pick they try to break through with hands trying to interweave with other hands, then hearts hemorrhaging onto one other with perfectly transcendent ineffectuality (seriously, check the lyrics of “Wolf Like Me”).

And it is for these thematic reasons, and the compelling musical ones, that TV on the Radio simultaneously embodies and shatters the unsustainable and insensible idea of a Voice of a Generation.

The Voice of a Generation is a negative Voice, a Voice born out of conflict with other Voices. It cannot even be a single sustained Voice because once it is harmonized and upheld, the individuality behind the idea of a generation dies.

This band eats that jagged paradox for breakfast, and it tears these guys up inside even as it goes down.

Here we go off the interpretive edge again, but I would take a guess that the band has become aware of impossibility and importance of such a status for itself. If there was ever an album title that insisted upon its Voice Status, it certainly was Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes. By almost humorous contrast, Return to Cookie Mountain does not herald its own importance via titular sweep. Instead the music beneath Cookie Mountain is an earthquake of nearly generation-defining proportions, unassumingly triumphing where DYBB failed in trying its motley hand at generational definition. I gave it an obscenely high rating, but in with the retrospective benefit of Return, it was a loan of confidence paid back with a hell of a lot of unasked-for interest.

“I Was a Lover” is a devastating harbinger of that return. As the opener of the album it sounds the politico-personal howl and anguish of a whole confused populace, whose discontent has no universal or stable public voice. Instead they have the blast of a mournful sample, extinguished at the very edge of bloom. The band’s choice to abort the sample mid-blast must encourage some interpretation, especially coupled with the words that struggle above its despair and the electronic wash that forces it out of aural consciousness. It seems, in some basic way to, to embody the halted progress of personal protest and suffering from a deeper level to a surface one – say, from the unconscious to the conscious. For supports look to the song’s lyrics, which are preoccupied with “barricaded doors,” “sleepwalking,” being “locked in the bedroom,” and not “making eye contact when we have rodents in town.” Everywhere are images of self-imprisonment, a recession into the self and personal space in the face of the elephant in the room. Of course, the self-seclusion can’t block out the stomp, can’t shut down the hidden personal knowledge that “sleepwalking through this trial” is “really a crime / It’s criminal.” The personal can’t subsume the political, as the chorus repeats “I was a lover / Before this war.” Instead both negotiate, one against and with the other, in obfuscating hazes of noise.

It is that kind of expansion of vision, deliberate yet seemingly accidental, that creates Return’s crushing echo beneath the surface of a collective calm. The effect of unconscious dissatisfaction artificially cut off before it can reach the vocal chords – these are things created by sound, and what personal terrors and triumphs and trials can be expressed vocally are expressed in an unstable chorus. The words are still wounding, but where on DYBB personal happiness was the primary concern, here the concern wanders in that plane between personal responsibility and collective identification that engenders so much difficulty. As for the voices, I miss Tunde Adebimpe’s singular voice, and won’t for a second claim that its semi-marginalization takes nothing away from the beauty of the sound. But what beauty is deprived of the surroundings is reconstituted in intellectual and visceral power.

And even then there’s still plenty of beauty to be had. “Province” is all rusty glory, turning fuzz into furious splendor as it explodes out of a clean verse into a transcendent chorus. Check how it brilliantly splits the line “Stand, stare fast, erect and see that love is the province of the brave” between the crash of its guitars and the serenity of a verse passage, as though two lovers have braved fury and terror and find themselves floating in a heavenly ether. Also check that piano progression amid the serenity which doesn’t omit the low-end chord that admits the scars suffered to get to that more peaceful place.

It’s a forest of choices with purposes to be divined, but an English major doesn’t have to be in the room to point out how much the songs have also matured. The propensity to loop that hypnotized a listener in DYBB has been transformed into an urge for rupturing dynamic to shake him awake. In “Snakes and Martyrs” the urge manifests in a surprisingly delicate bridge that blushes mid-song; in differentiated vocal layering in its verse passages; and wordless choruses progressively augmented by horns. In a more general way, the group has made stylistic choices to fulfill their new vision: live drums that infect each new track with an individual heartbeat, more spacious and unpredictable spaces and structures in which to be surprised and crushed, vocal diversity that expresses a disunified struggle at unity.

If there’s a final word to be had on why Return is indeed a brilliant one from the scintillating potential of DYBB (there isn’t really), it might be best expressed in that most fruitful of contrasts: between the hypnotic and the explosive. That is, the album makes the argument – by means of progression from debut to sophomore album – that one cannot be the Voice of a Generation by lulling and entrancing. Instead, the way to create generational consciousness is by shocking it out of complacency, rousing it when it would fade to sleep, pointing out the barricades that would keep its individual identity shut in so that they may be broken down, and hard. Has TV on the Radio, then, become the Voice of our Generation? I wouldn’t presume to say. But see if you can shake it out of your head once Return to Cookie Mountain has crashed into it.