It’s all noise, everything is noise; birds chirp, construction crews jackhammer, and cities teem with the shock of waveform glut. Rock ‘n’ roll is noise by design, this trans-cultural enfant terrible that’s evolved through punk and post-punk, no wave, and avant-whatever, borne on the backs of the shattered echoes of slashed speaker cabinets and overdriven amplifiers and stompboxes that translate clean signals into dirty languages.
TV on the Radio’s music is a new kind of rock ‘n’ roll, one that collects all of this itinerant noise and recycles it, spits it back out as a pulsing, sandblasted reckoning. Fuzz and buzz, tumble-dry spin cycle patterns—are we listening to synthesizers or guitars, live drums or a programmed approximation? The dense mix of the New York City band’s sound—redundant, perhaps, on its surface, yet a swamp of complication beneath that serves as an artist’s rendering of the very city it comes from—makes piecemeal analysis irrelevant. It’s all one, a sonic totality of post-industrial digi-funk and the paranoid, lovesick blues of the Information Age—or, as Tunde Adebimpe sings in “DLZ”, the penultimate track on the band’s new Dear Science, “the long-winded blues of the never”.
Unlike previous TV on the Radio albums and EPs, Dear Science, the band’s third full-length, is equipped with bright lights that shine through the crackling haze. There’s a sense of purpose here, of direction and clarity, shafts of accessibility that relegate the din to the background without ever compromising the potentially hostile underbelly of the band’s core sound. Guitar vamps from the fakebooks of funk and R&B make groove-dictating manifestations, burbling horn charts from members of Antibalas up the band’s quotient of non-intellectualized dance impulses, and small string sections underscore the abundance of aching melody. The album’s opening track, “Halfway Home”, uses noise and rhythm as a myopic beacon to push things forward: a flatlining, one-note drone of fuzz provides the backbone for polyrhythmic handclaps and “ba-ba-ba"s that could allude to anything from doo-wop to the Beach Boys. The falsetto vocals and dramatic chord changes in the chorus suddenly affect the song’s altitude (“Is it not me? / Am I not pulled in to your clutch?”), and the whole thing goes headlong into the clouds.
Each song has a certain instrumental figure that functions as a concrete idea amid the otherwise claustrophobic, emotional swoons of Dear Science‘s dense geography. “Crying” and “Red Dress” are both bolstered by anxious Prince- and James Brown-esque guitar riffs, respectively, little chunks of good-time movement that defy the collapse of the world outside. “Family Tree”, the record’s time-stopping ballad, is carried by echoing piano chords à la Brian Eno. The bittersweet “Love Dog”, a stand-out simply for the way Adebimpe strings together sentence fragments that sound good together (“Patience is a virtue / Until its silence burns you”), is closed out by the heavy-hearted string section, which seems to extract tangible feeling from the mush of the song’s churning pit.
With the help of the Antibalas horns, percussion, and organ, “Red Dress” approaches the repetitive bliss of Afrobeat. It also boasts one of the record’s most blatant political statements: “Fuck your war, ‘cause I’m fat and in love and the bombs are fallin’ on me for sure / But I’m scared to death that I’m living a life not worth dying for”. Perhaps not so much a political statement as it is a statement of political abandonment, or even the existential consequence of politicized life. Likewise, “Dancing Choose”, a pseudo-rap stuck in a pavement-and-gravel rhythm track, zeroes in on a news-jockeying, trend-hounding consumer: “He’s a newspaper man / And he gets his ideas from a newspaper stand / ... / He expresses his confusion at his part in the plan / And he can’t understand why he’s not in command”. These political and ideological frustrations are inconveniences on the music, which sounds like it would rather just vamp and groove without the irksome intrusions—but, as Funkadelic would agree, a groove’s no good unless it’s got something to groove against.
Which brings me to “Golden Age”, Dear Science‘s first single and a musical amalgam of the record’s best elements: horns, handclaps, muted Michael Jackson dance-floor fodder. In hailing an “age of miracles, an age of signs”, TV on the Radio may be speaking in cryptic rock-isms; this so-called “golden age comin’ round” is either something to celebrate or run screaming from. Regardless of whether it’s a pragmatic truism or a long-shot prayer, it’s still just another piece of the big-noise picture. “Here it comes like a natural disaster”, Kyp Malone sings, his voice quavering with confidence, “All blown up like a ghetto blaster”. And there it is. Music goes boom.