[20 April 2004]
TV on the Radio came out with a brief but big statement on last year’s Young Liars EP. That debut featured four near-perfect originals, a brilliant doo-wop cover of the Pixies, and immaculate production. Young Liars delivered an exciting new voice out of Brooklyn but mostly unrelated to the New York sound. These tracks sounded like an alley squeezing tighter, and even the disc’s artwork was dark with just a spot of blurry electric light offering us a chance to walk somewhere. That light didn’t come out of the music or the words of TV on the Radio, but perhaps out of the fact that someone was making music this good.
Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes has an insert with similar art, but instead of a fuzzy signal to walk, we’re given a blazing streak of light that sits somewhere between lightning bolt and mad scientist lab on the cultural symbol scale. If Young Liars was an announcement of a new voice in a dark world, Desperate Youth sets itself up as the call to action in this bleakness. The opening track “The Wrong Way” begins with a saxophone, an instrument new to the band’s recordings. The first lyrics tell us something new is about to hit: “Woke up in a magic nigger movie.” TV on the Radio sounds ready for action, and its saxophone suddenly sounds like that instrument so important to the revolutionary poets of the ‘60s (Baraka and the Stooges). The lyrics proceed to spit at the happy darkies of the world, and the narrator enumerates his intelligence, compassion, spirituality, and sexuality, as well as his ambivalent feelings about those characteristics. The song builds to a declaration recalling 100 years of civil rights struggles: “I don’t wanna march peacefully / ...New negro politician / is stirring… inside me.” But wait: “No, there’s nothing inside me / but an angry heart beat.” The tension between two ways of responding to a racist society comes to a head here, just as we were getting more Malcolm than Martin, more DuBois than Washington.
It would be easy but unproductive to do some speculative biographical criticism of “The Wrong Way”, since TV on the Radio is in the position of being a “black rock band” (quick, name another one without Vernon Reid). Whatever the song’s autobiographical connotations, its importance to the album remains clear. Besides being the CD’s first song, it also includes the lyric from which the album gets its title. “The Wrong Way” would be impressive as single, but it’s powerful setting the tone for an album. It’s strange, then, to find TV on the Radio following this track with “Staring at the Sun”, the only Young Liars song that reappears on this full-length. The song has been rearranged a bit—the opening a cappella bit is chopped and the song is a bit expanded. Comparing the two versions also reveals that TV on the Radio has gone for a less hi-fi production on this album. “Staring at the Sun” is a quality song, but probably only the second best original from the EP. Its placement jars the listener out of the mood evoked by the opener, canceling the political feel of the album just as the group established a tension (which now feels more like an indecisiveness).
Over its other seven tracks, Desperate Youth never resolves this tension. TV on the Radio’s failure isn’t in their refusal to embrace the overtly political (enough bad music has already been made for the sake of speaking out, including this album’s one return to agitation, “Bomb Yourself”). The failure stems instead from the band’s inability to move. Track one leads to indecisiveness, track two follows with a transfixed stare, and nothing happens after that, except some sex and some wooing and some, well, more of the same. TV on the Radio criticizes the immobility of the “fucking eternal”, but at this moment, they don’t offer a break from it.
Despite the album’s general inertia, it contains some impressive individual songs. Lyrically, “Poppy” takes as mature and considered view of partnering, parenting, and physical interaction as any song I’ve heard, and dramatizes it through a narrator of questionable reliability. “Wear You Out” gets to the heart (and pants) of desire in a way that will almost guarantee that you’ll need a drink after listening to it. It’s a slo-mo look at a hot, lonely night in a club, backed with slightly ominous glimpses into the psyche (a disturbing sexual theme that appears throughout the album). Both these songs, effective as they are, still point to TV on the Radio’s current weak point—nothing moves. The narrator of “Poppy” holds his relationship at a progenetive standstill while the narrator of “Wear You Out” waits the entire night to try to get with the object of his effection. Object is the key word here, as TV on the Radio’s love interests tend to be stagnant and repositories for desire.
I’m not arguing for the necessity of a political or narrative; I’d just like to see a fulfillment of the possibilities suggested by “The Wrong Way”. The group’s first song on its first release, “Satellite” was sung by a man waiting for his or his lover’s cell phone to kick in. Despite this album’s anthemic opening, we’re still stuck with unfulfilled male desire. On any given song, TV on the Radio is impressive musically and far past their peers lyrically. Over the course of an album and a half, however, that interesting pathos turns into a dull character study. The title Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes sums up the feelings of the album’s characters and TV on the Radio’s expressed sexual politics, but the album never delivers a character being driven to anything because of desperation or blood thirst. We’ve got a new way of hearing the static from “Satellite”.
“The Wrong Way” ends with a statement to the albums’ title characters: “Your guns are pointed the wrong way.” The power of this line hinges on the fact that we don’t know which way the guns are pointed to start with. On one level the indeterminacy hints at both the aggression and fear present throughout the album, but on another level, it just suggests the album’s lack of clear progress. We know that TV on the Radio started with a brilliant debut, but we just have to hope that the band figures out where to point its gun.