[15 September 2006]
TV on the Radio don’t sound like anything else, and it is to their credit that even now, some three years and counting since they first burst from Zeus’ swollen head and onto the international scene, they are still definitively sui generis. Considering the primacy of influence and homage in modern pop music (and especially their primacy in the critical rhetoric used to define said music), the advent of a group shorn of easily-pidgeonholed antecedents should have been greeted with considerable indifference. That this has not been the case is a source of some small consolation for those ready to dismiss the entire modern critical apparatus for the sins of those status-seeking hipsters who readily conflate fashion with significance.
Because, yes, TV on the Radio don’t quite sound like anything else you’ve ever heard before. And the fact that they can turn this novelty into something not only interesting but intermittently brilliant marks them as unique. It’s one thing to produce consistently good music, altogether another to produce legitimately novel music, and while the two goals are not necessarily mutually exclusive, the pursuit of the latter by no means guarantees the success of the former. It’s safe to say that the history of pop music is predicated on novelty, and as a result most narratives are built atop cycles of creation and refinement. Someone does something first, another person continues the practice and refines it; a third party completely rejects the initial advancement and strikes out on their own, initiating an entirely new cycle. By being so damn unique, TV on the Radio have effectively sidestepped the conventional critical shorthand of cultivated influence. There aren’t very many bands who have ever seemed so uniquely themselves. Their sound is their own, for better or for worse.
Return to Cookie Mountain will come as a relief to those who had feared that the group’s sophomore release would signal a dilution of their trademark eccentricity. Anyone who worried at the announcement that the group had signed with Interscope Records can rest easily, as TV on the Radio have released one of the most obdurately difficult major-label debuts in recent history. Radio programmers looking for hook-heavy jams need not apply.
Therefore, 2004’s New Health Rock EP can be seen, in hindsight, as something of a red herring. The title track of that disc was a focused burst of taut rock-dominated energy, leading many listeners (including myself) to infer a newfound buoyancy in the group’s sound that belied the willful obscurantist tendencies of their first recordings, 2003’s Young Liars EP and 2004’s Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes. It’s best to demolish any expectations before hearing Return to Cookie Mountain: TV on the Radio have very explicitly made the album they wanted to make. Just as critics might flounder in seeking to describe their sound, it is equally difficult to pinpoint any analogies to the kind of development on display here. Contrary to the expectations of their most vocal boosters, they’ve not evolved into the 21st century’s great future-pop band—the album contains only a few moments to equal the propulsive grandeur of “Staring at the Sun” (included in slightly modified form on both Young Liars and Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes), “Satellite” (from Young Liars), or “New Health Rock”. It is obvious now that Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes did not represent some kind of chrysalis from which a masterfully defined pop powerhouse would emerge. At the risk of courting tautology, it is evident now that TV on the Radio are and have always been TV on the Radio, with all the difficult, thorny, occasionally indulgent and frustrating impulses that such a statement implies.
Although those of us (damnable critics with our propensity for narrative!) who may have wished to find in Return to Cookie Mountain a conclusive artistic statement on par with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ staggering Show Your Bones, the album resists any kind of reductive analysis, however flattering. It sounds less like a punctuated statement than merely (merely!) another chapter in what promises to be a long career. As such, it’s a recondite and slightly elusive experience, the kind of album that requires repeated listenings to properly appreciate. Furthermore, it’s definitely an album that is enlarged by knowledge of the group’s previous releases.
Most pop music is predicated on a desire for synthesis—taking alternating or conflicting impulses and somehow making them gel into a cohesive whole. TV on the Radio, almost uniquely, are defined by the way in which conflicting musical forms are contrasted, set alongside each other in such a way as to accentuate dissimilarities and highlight incongruities. Sometimes the result is chaos. At their best, however, the band achieves a dynamic equilibrium that is simply breathtaking to behold. They’re working pretty much without a net here, taking the kind of serious risks that you rarely see in today’s musical climate, especially from a highly-feted indie rock band with everything to lose from recording a bum album so fresh out of the gate.
Nowhere is their conflict better illustrated than in the album’s first track, “I Was a Lover”. I am tempted to ascribe the prominent placement of this track to an ingrained impishness on the part of the band. A stuttering, Timbaland-esque hip-hop beat begins the track, followed soon by an awkwardly blurting horn section, middle-eastern accents, punky post-rock guitar drones, and, somewhere along the line, a real drum kit playing slightly off-beat from the drum machine. Over everything hovers Tunde Adebimpe’s distinctive metallic tenor, occasionally offset with Kyp Malone’s falsetto harmonies. It’s a brave choice to lead off the album, because, quite frankly, it sounds like a mess, practically a jumble, almost a textbook example of how not to build a track… and yet, somehow, it manages to cohere into something slightly less disastrous than the description implies. Even when their sound fails, it is still distinctive enough to be appreciably compelling.
Even if “I Was a Lover” is the highpoint of the album’s willful abrasiveness, the whole enterprise is still fuelled by intrusive dichotomies. “Province”, one of the album’s strongest tracks, builds on the contrast between relatively sedate verses and strong bridges, introducing a variant on the hallowed quiet-loud-quiet template. A mid-tempo drumbeat and sparse guitar combined with ominous piano build into a heavy, fuzz-drenched section that appears to be a bridge leading to a luminous chorus, but which turns out to actually be the chorus—the result is slightly disconcerting on the first listen, a movement without a climax. But closer examination reveals a much more sophisticated effect, that of a group with a deep enough knowledge of pop convention to effectively subvert the process without necessarily condescending to their audience in the process.
“Wolf Like Me” and “Blues from Down Here” are probably the most effective tracks on the album in terms of presenting the most unified concentration of the group’s sound. Both tracks are up-tempo rockers that owe more to “New Health Rock” than anything else on the album in terms of their focus. “Wolf Like Me” stomps along with enviable confidence, with monstrous fuzz guitar and an easy melodic sense that belies the track’s underlying anxiety (an anxiety that is underscored by the downbeat bridge). Conversely, “Blues from Down Here” is a markedly downbeat tune, despite its hard-charging rhythm. Adebimpe’s exaggerated vocals seem weighted down with misery, almost to the point of hysteria, and the recurring blasts of tenor saxophone and underlying acid guitar only serve to heighten the mordant feeling. The recurring refrain of “Pull the pin, drop it in, let it wash away” echoes through the track like a nursery rhyme. “Let the Devil In” features an even more evocative melody, straddled somewhere between a campfire singalong and a drunken rant, careening loosely on a ramshackle drumbeat and ringing guitar.
If the first half of the disc is fairly energetic, the album’s second half is dominated by quieter tracks, reflecting the same preoccupation with complex vocal harmonies and instrumental texture that served as Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes‘s signature motif. “A Method” relies mainly on Adebimpe’s voice to carry a sing-song tune, offset as usual with Malone’s harmonies and a repeating tribal drum fanfare. “Tonight” is a ballad in the same mold as “Ambulance” off Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, with mellow, synth-dominated instrumentation scaffolding Adebimpe’s plaintive performance. The album climaxes with the exquisite “Wash the Day Away”, an eight-minute long dirge built on the the harmonic congruence of massive layers of sound, from fuzzy guitars, ominous bass movements, psychedelic sitar fanfares, and even the occasional piping flute. It builds to an adequately epic conclusion before drifting off and away in a three-minute long denouement of shifting white noise. It’s an appropriately magisterial gesture from a band that often seems hell-bent on subverting the traditional prerogatives of indie rock and pop music in general.
Return to Cookie Mountain is pretty much the definition of a mixed-bag, albeit a much better album than is usually implied by the term. It may sound strange and unwieldy on first (or second or third) exposure, but those who stick with it will be rewarded with an album of surpassing intricacy, filled with an abundance of musical nooks and crannies, the likes of which reward sustained attention and concentrated effort on the part of the listener. I’m not ashamed to say that I still haven’t made up my mind about the album myself—although I’ve been listening to it for over a week as of this writing, it still reveals new and different facets with each new examination. The fact that it is patchy in places indicates not so much a qualified failure on the part of the group, as simply a temporary overreach. They’ve already got as distinctive a sound as could be possibly imagined, they just haven’t figured out exactly the right way to go about applying that sound across an album-length endeavor. When they do hit the sweet spot, which they already do with frightening regularity, the results are truly amazing to behold. Even if they succeed in frustrating adjective-deficient rock critics for many years to come, the group has already embarked on what could well be one of the most promising careers of the new millennium.