TV on the Radio
Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes
(Touch & Go; 2004)
By Amir Nezar | 31 December 2007
There is a kind of perverted beauty in the tumble of the soul, isn’t there? Whether you’re talking James Joyce’s ironic eloquence in Portrait‘s Steven Daedalus’s moral spiral into the abscesses of the terrible, the dens of sin; or Baudelaire’s praise of prostitutes and odes to the squalor of the streets; modernism has wound around its attempts at transcendence a barbed wire forged out of man’s darker places. We would not care about the Daedalus/Icarus myth if Icarus managed to escape. The sinister beauty, the lure of it, is in his fall. The point is not that Daedalus got away, but that Icarus didn’t. And what, ultimately, might we label the reason for Icarus’s crucial fall? His youth, his naiveté.
The part that youth plays in TV on the Radio’s dumbfoundingly beautiful new LP, is evidenced clearly enough in the title. It is an ode, in the vein of Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal, to the perversion and darkness that nestles where we most often think beauty blooms: in youth. It makes no pretensions to coolness; just listen to how, on "The Wrong Way," the scatting horns that seem like they’re about to establish a cool lounge vibe are almost immediately strangled by the deep, sludgy bass that sloshes in not even three seconds into the track. The percussion arrives, fluttering in on rusted aluminum wings like an industrial butterfly, to give the horns a beacon around which to gather in the smoke-filled darkness, where young and yellowed teeth chew on grit and drink alcohol straight. Occasional sinews of flatlining guitar wander around like an errant snake, slipping itself through the horns and, since I haven’t mentioned it yet, disturbingly gorgeous amorphous vocals. The horns are the only instruments to survive the slow decline of the song, until they too give up; if there was anyone new in the room they’ve either run off to happier, and, we can’t help but feel, delusional places. That, or: they, too, are lost in this lightless haven of honest, and therefore shattered, youth. The stage is set, and TV on the Radio are asking you, "Now will you take part in the play?"
The irony is that if you do stick it out, the end result is a tattered but real transcendence. In this murk of ruined hope is the difficult but true connection of disappointed soul to disappointed soul; what I mean is, there is a magnificent humanity to Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes. And just like modern writers have squeezed a strange beauty out of this directionless, at times (yes) desperate reality, TV on the Radio forge out of this smithy an absolutely stunning piece of (no less than) transcendent art. They don’t avoid darkness and the bog of our humanity; they plunge into it, and come out sparkling clean.
They also do it with the most (relatively) original sound that I have heard in the past two years. They combine industrial-brand bass with tinny percussion and guitars that are as angelic as they are metallic, and the absolutely inimitable ghostly murmurings and falsettos of Tunde Adebimpe and company. The production is flawless; vocal unsteadiness and breaks are not only allowed, they establish the tenuous, frail feeling that permeates the album despite the group’s obvious confidence in every minute construction, in every musical phrase. It makes the album undeniably genuine, an open, scarring wound with nothing to hide, and displays in prominence the haunting internal dynamic of each piece, rather than focusing on cleanliness.
The lyrics here are as heartrendingly beautiful as they were on the Young Liars EP, made only more crushing by the intonation of Adebimpe, who consistently inflects the tracks here with a weary-eyed vulnerability. He can take the seemingly simple line, "I just want to let you know that I don’t love you anymore," and by means of his delivery alone add ten tons of weight to it. His variations in tone and intensity are so perfectly measured, his pauses between words stretched out to such perfect length, that their rhythm becomes purely intoxicating. It may not make you dance, but it will droop your eyes and make you sway in gentle catharsis. With other unquestionably golden nuggets like, "I will be your accident if you will be my ambulance / And I will be your screeching crash if you will be my crutch and cast / and I will be your one more time if you will be my one last chance," TV on the Radio go beyond simple cleverness and steep themselves in dark profundity. By the way, in case you aren’t yet convinced of the guts of this band, those lyrics come from "Ambulance," which happens to be a twisted cousin of a barbershop quartet tune; only vocals, shifting in and out of minor keys and breathy utterances like ghosts.
And, despite the sheer, almost virtuoso brilliance of their EP, there are new ideas and takes in Desperate Youth that cement its blindsiding near-perfection. The first is its sterling use of guitars, the textures, volumes, and interactions of which are subtle and profound all the way through the record. At times a single, sustained, furiously strummed note will fight its way through the dense atmosphere; in other instances, a guitar will actually provide a brilliant hook (somewhat rare for these guys – then again, they are extremely unconventional); and in still other instances, two guitars will wind about each other like sparring serpents.
The other enormous improvement is in the band’s percussion, which has erstwhile developed into far more complex rhythms than the more sluggish (albeit appropriate) pace of their EP. In songs like "Poppy," the more energetic, intricate percussion combines with a sludging guitar that alternates between propping up a hook and then blistering out into sustained blasts, while the vocals take over hook duties. Finally, while synths were ever-present on Young Liars, here they get more inventive and more creative, while remaining sinister as ever. "Don’t Love You" plays like a Stereolab tune that’s been gutted, inverted, and lilted into a minor key. The staggering (in the verb sense) percussion is smoothed over by dulcet, eerie keyboard noodlings, while the lyrics break your heart, and the guitars fight like embittered, wounded souls. Adebimpe’s vocals are no longer the focal point of the songs; they’ve become just another fantastic ingredient in a more substantial mix.
Ultimately though, what makes this album almost unutterably brilliant, is its steady progression from "The Wrong Way" – which is the kind of spare song that we had come to expect from TV on the Radio – through beautiful developments and variations, so that by the time we’re hit with the later phenomenal standouts (and I don’t kid when I swear that at least 6 of these 9 tunes are standouts), it’s become apparent that we’re dealing with a fully formed beast. And if The Cure inherited the atmosphere crown from Joy Division, then the new bearer is this band, who manage at the same time to be so gorgeously substantive that the atmosphere they establish is doubly satisfying. While being bathed in the deep, lustrous mist of failed youth, we can nonetheless objectively look and see that the guts behind it are there; they are in the evolutions of guitar textures, they are there in the more adventurous use of bass, they are there in the different employments of space, they are there, finally, in the perfect arrangement of all of these elements to make a massively powerful whole. I’m tempted to say that it’s already topped Broken Social Scene from last year; kind of frightening to think that this could already be the best album of this year or last. Now we just have to see if it ages well. I can tell you this much, I’ve gotten through around seven listens so far, and my interest and love for it only intensifies with each one.
So while their lyrics include all sorts of Icarus imagery, like "fall with me" and "all your wings have fallen down," there is an inevitable arrival at cleansing transcendence. It is, interpreted through whatever artistic lens, a beautifully modernist work, finding salvation amidst the ruins of youth, beauty amidst the darkness of the soul. But hell, when you listen to the glorious sweep of synths and guitars in "Dreams," or the brooding, angry intensity of "Staring at the Sun," (taken from their EP), you won’t need these artsy-fartsy qualifiers. "Fucking amazing" will do just fine.