[sic] Magazine

TV On The Radio – Dear Science

And so to the most eagerly anticipated release since ‘Neon Bible’. It’s a reasonable parallel. At that moment Arcade Fire were the hottest ticket around for what we might call “breakthrough alternative”. Like ‘Neon Bible’, ‘Dear Science’ will be weighed and measured (and found wanting) against one record and one record only, namely its own predecessor, ‘Return to Cookie Mountain’. Is it as good? Is it better? It all depends on where you are and your point of view. The satisfaction of any hedonist or connoisseur of art and beauty relies on a configuration of both anticipation and fulfillment. The piece itself acts only as a trigger for the person’s own responses. If a film makes us cry, we cannot assert that the movie alone achieved this as there will be someone, somewhere else for whom the same work produces a different response. Only the connections that we make ourselves resonate. We, therefore, are part of the process. To appreciate ‘Dear Science’ we have to want to appreciate it, expect to, even. But such high expectations require an equally high pay-off. TVOTR have raised the bar by themselves but we have raised it further still. Can they therefore go clear? Or will they bring that bar crashing down?

The truly interesting aspect of TVOTR was always their sheer melting pot of ideas and styles. They blend funk, blues, gospel and doo wop – each in sharp contrast to eerie synth-lines, and brooding indie guitars. The amorphous vocals of Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone combined with their genre-hopping make the TVOTR listening experience one of constant fluidity and flux. This melting pot remains and yet the comparison between the new album and ‘Cookie Mountain’ is one of night and day. ‘Dear Science’ feels like the morning after the night before. Only TVOTR don’t look so great by daylight.

‘Halfway house’ is aptly named because it is half House (Of Love) and half ‘Surfin bird’. It’s a decent enough opening and signals their intent to lighten things up a touch. The danger though, of going soft, going mainstream this way is that TVOTR come across as a kind of indie Blues Brothers – still playing homage to brilliant soul and jazz unquestionably but are we supposed to take it seriously…..?

…..or not? ‘Dancing Choose’ is a particularly unfortunate moment. What were they thinking? This is a cheesy, unconvincing rap that puts me in mind of Robbie Williams’ ‘Rock DJ’. I shift in my seat with embarrassment. TVOTR have often been compared to Prince, who in his heyday was another ‘mix-and-match’ blender of styles. I guess when TVOTR have made five great albums in a row, maybe then we’ll play comparisons? Yes, previous TVOTR records have reminded me of the purple one’s edgier, more subversive work – the kind of material you’d find on his b-sides, bootleg outtakes or a particularly kinked album track (If I Was Your Girlfriend) Listening to a track such as ‘Crying’ it is clear ‘Dear Science’ is more ‘Speakerboxxx’ than ‘Sign Of the Times’. (Mind you, ‘Speakerboxx’ did shift 11 million units so who’s worried?)

At the midway point of Dear Science, we find ‘Family Tree’, a gentle, piano-led ballad made memorable only by the inclusion of “gallows” (hear it for yourselves) After the turn we cannot escape the fact that this album dips badly. Different styles are still in evidence but there’s less reaction. We need a catalyst. ‘Red Dress’ is a stab at the kind of tinny, jazz-funk Talking Heads were peddling in the late 70’s and could be lost, anonymously anywhere on the Foals album. ‘Shout me out’ suffers from a lack of discernible identity and ‘Love Dog’ sounds like it was swept from the cutting room floor after ‘Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes’. The second half of the album is eventually redeemed by the exhilarating ‘DLZ’. Here, and perhaps only here, TVOTR get everything right. Aside from ‘Stork and Owl’, this is the albums best track. But ‘Stork and Owl’ is a throwback to ‘Cookie Mountain’ If we’re looking for justification of TVOTR’s new direction, ‘DLZ’ is the blueprint to follow. It’s crisp and exciting – still dark, yet aiming directly for the hips and feet. When Adebimpe yelps, “Eternalized, objectified you set your sights so high” we’re thrust into Twilight Singers territory. Greg Dulli is going to own this song when he adds it to his repertoire of cover versions

“Never you mind death professor, your shocks are fine, my struts are better”

We’d better all pray we’re at that Twilights show.

The album closes on ‘Lover’s Day’, a perfect summary for the entire experience. We were expecting a Black Mass, but instead we got Mardi Gras. Admittedly, they’re parading the French Quarter pretty nicely but it isn’t what we wanted. Let’s say it. Let’s get it out in the open. This isn’t what we wanted. We miss the night fevers of ‘Cookie Mountain’. There are no ‘Playhouses’ here. No ‘Tonight’ and certainly no ‘Wolf Like Me’ (And rightly so.) TVOTR had to face the twin demons of following a great record whilst suddenly becoming rather fashionable. Thus they decided to follow ‘Cookie Mountain’ by not following ‘Cookie Mountain’. And since arguably that record was itself a more refined and polished version of ‘Desperate youth…’ they really had little choice but to depart from the formula.

Such is the curse of the “follow-up” album. It is not unlike a movie sequel. We as audience expect something the same but we also want something more. Truthfully, we don’t really know what we want but we trust that artist to have the vision and technique to satisfy us anyway. In reality few sequels are great films in their own right but again it all depends on your perspective. Where you are and your point of view. For me ‘Dear Science’ is interesting and listenable but that’s feint praise for a band as important as TVOTR. We’re back to anticipation and fulfillment again. Like good sex we needed both. ‘Dear Science’ is playful enough, certainly, but the best we’ve ever had? Not even close.