After years of obscurity in its native New York, TV on the Radio is now a genuine big deal: The critical response to 2006’s Return to Cookie Mountain, the band’s major-label debut, was universally positive. But the band clearly doesn’t see that album as any kind of template, and with Dear Science, it’s made one of the year’s darkest, most melodic, and convention-defying albums. Supernaturally good bands can get away with weird stunts, and the new album is full of them: Electronic drums, surf-rock guitar tones, pop-piano lines, and other ’80s ephemera accompany Tunde Adebimpe’s signature wailing vocals. There’s also a good argument for diagnosing the album with multiple genre disorder, but its quirks aren’t simply for show—after all, the band itself is a big fat quirk. Rejecting the discomfiting melodic dissonance and staggered meters that defined Cookie Mountain, the band no longer deals in anything so manic as “Wolf Like Me.” A few songs come close, though, such as the fast-paced “Dancing Choose,” which seems to borrow its lyrical syncopation from Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and its horn section from George Harrison’s “Got My Mind Set on You.” The retro feel is more obvious on the softer tracks: “Crying” has a conventional architecture, with breathy vocals and funk guitar in the verse and eerie Bee Gees-high vocals on the chorus. “Golden Age” makes use of a new wave rhythm guitar and Atari synth sounds, plus a lyrical reference to ghetto blasters. “Red Dress” borrows Prince’s funky snap and flippant sass, merging it with anti-war lines like, “Hey jackboot! Fuck your war!” One exception to the overall ’80s motif is the delicate acoustic piano on “Family Tree,” which sounds like it were delivered from a Sufjan Stephens album. All that harking back to two decades past—not to mention the easy melodies and straightforward song structures—might suggest that the band has given up experimenting. But the album’s penultimate tune, “DLZ,” obliterates that theory. It’s a brooding track, and much like Cookie Mountain’s “I Was a Lover,” it’s a song for a late night, an empty road, and a heavy heart. The sparse instrumentation and absence of layers upon layers of vocal harmonies initially seem out of place. Yet the childish humming, industrial drums, and simple repeating synth motif both embrace an ’80s state of mind and renounce saccharine pop. In the process, the song recontextualizes the rest of the album, making the whole of Dear Science feel less like a nostalgia trip and more like a subtle indictment of popular culture. Now that’s experimental.
VIDEO:TV On the Radio, "Golden Age"