TV on the Radio Steps Back to Gaze at the Apocalypse

For a brief moment in late 2008, it felt like the clouds were parting after eight dark years, and TV on the Radio's supremely great "Golden Age" might just be heralding the start of something truly amazing. The band went all out, leaving any arty pretension to the music video and earnestly proclaiming that, holy shit, positivity and patience might just pay off.

Well, that didn't last long, did it? Though it might have felt in a tiny way like America's own "Winds of Change" — a Scorpions' power ballad remembered as the soundtrack to post-Berlin-Wall Germany — even lead singer Kyp Malone himself was dubious. "I just voted for a dude who supports wiretapping," he told Spin in early 2009, "because that was the best option."

Fast forward a couple of years, when we're only a few months away from what the Mayans and Roland Emmerich warn us is our civilization's high-concept apocalypse, and a gang of clever L.A. assholes predicts that the future will get odder before it gets better. As for Malone, he's resigned to irony. "Do the 'no future,'" he warbles, as if true believers have any other choice. "Shake it like it's the end of time." He forgot to include the part where we throw up our hands.

Bassist Gerard Smith (far right) died of lung cancer at 36 last week.
Bassist Gerard Smith (far right) died of lung cancer at 36 last week.

Location Info

Map

The Independent

628 Divisadero
San Francisco, CA 94117

Category: Music Venues

Region: Haight/ Fillmore

Details

TV on the Radio performs Monday, May 9, and Tuesday, May 10, at the Independent. 9 p.m., advance tickets sold out; www.theindependentsf.com.

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Drawing its rhetorical thrust equally from Sun Ra's "Nuclear War" and Jon Stewart's latest shoulder-shrugging Daily Show segment "I Give Up," "Future" is the funky sigh of smart people comprehending their own helplessness in the face of forces they understand but can't hope to change — a sadly ironic fact in light of bassist Gerard Smith's death from lung cancer the week after the album's release. It's also the lone political moment on Nine Types of Light, an album on which a band whose every action feels crucial decides to step back and gaze at the apocalypse its team couldn't help prevent. On the sexiest song here, Malone coos, "If the world all falls apart/I'm gonna keep your heart." Sweet and romantic, sure, but also sort of Beyond Thunderdome when you think about it.

Light is also the first TV on the Radio album to be recorded away from the band's comfy boho surroundings in north Brooklyn. And then some: The band decamped to a mall-based studio near Rodeo Drive that, guitarist and singer Tunde Adebimpe claims, is three blocks from a plastic surgery clinic. Granted, if your muse is such that you want to sit back and watch the decline of Western civilization without trying to intervene, Los Angeles is where you go. And the group still has its eyes open, it's just that the transcontinental relocation means it's taking in different sights. The glassy funk of "Forgotten" is pulled tight like a Botoxed forehead before giving way to a brass fanfare fit for the Four Horsemen. As it builds, Adebimpe sketches a surreal, eerily prescient scene: "Beverly Hills/Nuclear winter/What should we wear/And who's for dinner?"

The best songs here deal with interpersonal bonds, proving that in all of its TMI awkwardness, "Lover's Day" wasn't a fluke: These guys can write love songs on their own terms. This time, it's Adebimpe's turn; "Will Do" and "You" are the two best songs on the album, and two of his most mature performances to date. The former is a lithe, muscular plea to a lost love for "any time at all," the latter a towering synthpop anthem in which he lets a woman set sail with no regrets. In 2006, he turned into a wolf when the sun went down. In the video for "Will Do," we watch as he sips a coffee before strapping on a Strange Days–style VR helmet to get the next best thing to being with his lost love — a simulation of being nude and interlocked with her. Okay, the band members are still plenty TMI when they want to be. Maybe they were stung by the prediction in "Golden Age" meeting the same practical fate as "Yes We Can," but it's clear that they have fully embraced the allure of individuality.

Light is the first TVOTR album that plays to type instead of breaking new ground, which means that some of the band's tropes risk bordering on parody, and its well-known penchant for compositional ADD seems like a bit of overcompensation. Dear Science opened with the roaring "Halfway Home"; Light begins with "Second Song," which seems to get lost before accidentally wandering into the band's umpteenth falsetto-funk chorus. The layers of texture keyboardist and guitarist Dave Sitek piles on "No Future Shock" — steel pans, raga, Feelies-style hyperjangle, a big brass finish — add up to overstimulation.

Appropriate, then, that Light ends with "Caffeinated Consciousness," the album's most amped-up track and one that lives up to the promise of its title by toggling between a pummeling riff that sits somewhere between Run D.M.C. and the Pixies' "UMass" and a B section that scans more as P.M. Dawn. It's spastic like a sugar buzz, but with a purpose. In what feels like a sequel to the State of the Union address that was "Dancing Choose," Adebimpe suggests, however obliquely, the possibility of harnessing our excess energy and rerouting it toward a productive end.

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