The Seeds of Time
They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder, but that’s not necessarily true. Maybe they should say that a premature departure makes the heart grow nostalgic – but that’s kind of a mouthful.
Anyway, it certainly took a leave of absence for us to fully appreciate TV On The Radio. After a gap in activity that felt far longer than its three and a half years, it seemed like all anyone wanted to talk about was how great the group’s 2004 breakout, Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, sounded in comparison to the Mellotron-layered silkiness of 2011’s Nine Types of Light.
It’s an unfair comparison, but more grievous crimes have gone unpunished. It’s not entirely the fans’ faults, either; for more than a decade now, TV On The Radio has been one of the increasingly rare exceptions to the “Don’t believe the indie hype” rule. The Brooklyn ensemble is a soulful, eclectic beacon in the often homogenous, sometimes unintentionally sexless sea of contemporary indie rockers. The group has always been defined by the tracheal Bad Brains wail and percussive, Bo Diddley-style guitar battery of bearded axman Kyp Malone and rounded out by frontman Tunde Adebimpe’s full-bodied croon, resulting in a band that is as apt to churn out buzzing, power chord-driven ragers as they are sensual Marvin Gaye grooves like “Lover’s Day,” the jubilant twenty-first century ode to raucous sex that serves as the capstone of Dear Science.
This time around, the gang insist that if they’ve returned with what Adebimpe is calling “1,000 percent, without a doubt, the best thing we’ve ever done.” A loaded qualification, to be sure. If Seeds isn’t the band’s best release (and it’s not by any means) it’s by far their most immediately accessible.
And so it is with Seeds as it has been with a litany of other art rock bands that have rounded the corner of their initial universal acclaim: The Strokes, The Yeah Yeah Yeah’s, Interpol among them. Though the abrasive textures and motley, ear-catching instrumentation that garnered early critical celebration have been largely smoothed over by crisp production, the quality songwriting that we’ve all come to love sustains the album’s lack of variety.
Seeds kicks off with “Quartz,” assuring listeners that the dark, delightful sense of claustrophobia that Adebimpe’s voice seems to conjure is still very much intact, and rolls on with “Happy Idiot” which will almost definitely come to be TV On The Radio’s own “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” the tight, catchy tail end of the career hit single that somehow manages to eclipse the albums’ worth of work it took to arrive at its moment. Amidst the jerky, dance floor tick of the hi-hat and spidery new wave chords begins a lyrical theme that carries through the rest of Seeds: distracting oneself from a great loss. The initial inclination is to align lyrics like “Since you left me babe / It’s been a long way down” and “Now I know that I was such a fool / For thinking you’re the only one” with the dissolution of a romantic relationship, but the circumstances surrounding Seeds, like the death of long-time bassist Gerard Smith, give the words an extra dimension that has so far gone unexplored in the work of TVOTR, even among the rapid fire witticisms of “Dancing Choose” from Dear Science.
Regrettably, The Jesus and Mary Chain layer of fuzz that distinguished early TVOTR hits like “Wolf Like Me” has all but burned away. That is, excepting “Winter” and the thudding crunch of “Lazerray”, the latter of which sounds a little bit like Boris covering The MC5. “Ride” begins with an unusually long pastoral interlude, and ends up sounding like indie rock interpretation of a deep Bruce Springsteen arena anthem, but shifts into a weirdly tribal stutter step rhythm that recalls early TVOTR tracks like “Golden Age” and “Dreams.”
Despite the glossy sheen and pristine soundboardsmanship, Seeds doesn’t pack the experimental post-punk punch of Return to Cookie Mountain, nor the enveloping, indie gospel clamor of Dear Science. It doesn’t even really benefit from slick consistency of the sound engineering in the swinging style of “New Cannonball Blues” and other cuts from Nine Types of Light. One thing the new album does have, though, is the sincerity of the group’s 2002 debut OK Calculator. TVOTR’s earliest and latest are both imperfect records, but ones that clearly articulate a temporally specific, collective state of mind communicated through their songs’ structural immediacy and consistent instrumental palette. On the whole, Seeds is lighter and catchier and has choruses that prominently feature words like “Revolution” and phrases like “Everything’s gonna be okay.” Any attentive listener could have seen an album like this coming years ago. However, TV on The Radio remind their fans and critics that they haven’t lost their glib cynicism with the addition of the echoing addendum “So I keep telling myself” in the refrain.