TV on the Radio

Dear Science,

(Interscope; 2008)

By Clayton Purdom | 6 October 2008

Like most of you, I do not personally know the band TV on the Radio. I’ve never met them. They’re probably very nice people.

But in the back of my head I’ve always thought: fuck these guys. From the first wild-eyed murmurings about the Young Liars EP (2003) and the debut that served as its actualization, they’ve been presented as the music lover’s dream band: blonde-ish musically, but agnostic to genre; globally composed but still conveniently Brooklynite; cosmopolitan and sincere; devoutly contemporary but, somehow, apolitical; “angular” and “visceral” and “crucial” and other blank criticspeaks; friends, at last, with David Bowie. Like a cineaste forced to confirm Quentin Tarantino’s pedigree—”Yes, he’s lifting from Godard here”—I find myself balking at the universal insistence that I love TV on the Radio. They don’t need my fandom. You already love them enough.

I rarely attack artists for pretension or self-importance, but there is something intolerable about the way these men carry themselves, the plaintive lack of humor that renders even fucking Important, their ineffable but dull politics, the high-sheen production that recalls at once Nine Inch Nails’ The Fragile (1999) and, well, Nine Inch Nails’ With Teeth (2005). I’ve clearly written my own death warrant here. I also can’t tell if this band is obsessed with September 11 or if we’re just obsessed with writing about them within that context. But in the face of the music my cynicism thaws, fleetingly. It’s dark, propulsive stuff, at times spottily beautiful (“Ambulance”) and others sneering fun (“Wolf Like Me”). It’s music I want to believe in, but upon album’s completion resolutely do not, left as I am without a single melody lingering or sonic device to fondly recall. Either I am of two minds, or there are two TVs on the Radio bandying about, one a media construct and the other a band.

So, they’ve got a new album. I’d been pointedly avoiding it. It’s called Dear Science,, comma devilishly included, and its cover is as ugly as its predecessors’. But the Clay that wants to like this band is giddy on first listen. Only the most callous asshole would deny the precision percussion of “Dancing Choose,” the shift from locomotion to celestial bloom that closes “Golden Age,” the smart phrases throughout (“foam-injected Axl Rose,” “the gallows of your family tree,” “never you mind, deaf professor”). The record eschews its predecessors’ slow-burn openers for buzzing buzz-worthy jet-engine guitars and ba-ba-bas, an ample introduction to the surplus of hooks and genuine songwriting contained within, finally anchoring all that lustrous BMW production to some outrageously pyrotechnic climaxes. It’s a streamlined shark-like attack to our pathos jugular: emo for the megaverse. It’s also the clearest actualization of their early hype, evoking at once Subtle, Prince, and Spoon. It is clearly the band’s best, most enjoyable record, and it has accordingly produced a critical reaction so disproportionate to its actual artistic merit that the second Clay feels like fucking a tuft of steel wool.

Maybe not that. Strange, though, that they should pose such a quandary to critics. None of my colleagues at the Glow even wanted to review this record (hence foot-dragging old me), and the other reviews fumbling over one another on Metacritic paint no clearer analytical portrait. Either this band is literally too great for words or there’s something in the water. Critics seem to agree that TV on the Radio are “important,” that this record is a “masterpiece,” that the band is “great,” but I have little clue in which context any of this might be. (“The human context” doesn’t count.) I’m sure that the band is investigating some complex binaries here: faith/intellect, political/emotional, power/sensational, or whatever, but nobody’s attempting to pick these apart, just assuming that it could be done. Or will be done. Or whatever. Strange that this shining jewel of a band has never once produced a critical reaction of worth; strange that despite all the bluster no critic can eloquently state why.

But let’s remove from this band’s list of accomplishments that which doesn’t find evidence within the music. Our accepted definition of them—genre-crushing leather-clad soothsayers of the apocalypse—is unfair. These guys aren’t Public Enemy. Rather than blubbering into greyness, let’s be specific about what TV on the Radio is, or, since I’m going first, is not: not political, since the soft lamentations (though delivered with vehemence!) of “Dancing Choose” could equally be applied to, sigh, Sarah Palin; not Important, because this is coked-down genre-rock; not great, because they don’t reach messily toward the infinite and then cram that risking everything into specificity like, sigh, OK Computer (1997), or whatever else we can all agree on; not almost great, because nothing in their career arc suggests this is something they’re interested in; not, in short, something we’ll remember fondly in 2018, aside from as something we all got really excited about way back when. Sorta like Faith No More.

What remains unticked off, though, composes a new portrait, one nearer to the reality of the musical experience at hand, and it’s one from which we may be wise to draw future critical observations. What we have left is a universally lauded group, with a onesheet rolling to infinity and album of the year awards growing by the, um, album, a band tapping through erotic, political and emotional vagaries into the vast contemporary mindset, a band, most importantly, noted high and low for their robust production aesthetic. What we have is an unabashed pop band—pop-rock, even. They will never accomplish what they’ve already been purported to because they’ve never asked a question to which they didn’t already have an answer. Dave Sitek’s production is the magnetic north of this musical universe, and with it the band is never lost. They would be well to sound more so; to get lost, rather than cluck with pleasure at how well they know themselves. Much of the media considers them heirs apparent to the great art-rock throne: post-Talking Heads, post-R.E.M., post-Pavement, etc., and they named their first record OK Calculator (2002); they believe in this billing. But they conceptualize the zeitgeist not as a monstrous phantom but as something physical and plainly comprehended, and pop music is made in the sky. If these guys are art, they should sound from our midst, not so cleanly above it.