On the cover of TV on the Radio's new album, a midnight blue felt board glows under what looks like a flickering fluorescent church light. Stick-on white plastic letters, cousins of the tiny tables that come in pizza boxes, spell out the words "Dear Science." It reads like an inspirational marquee for the Darwin set: a lonely humanist prayer that rises out of the imaginary room and disperses like carbon atoms in an exhaled breath. Dear Science, (the comma is part of the title) is TVOTR's third full-length album, and its 11 tracks pulse with the punchy dance beats, quivering falsettos and resounding hope of a true pop album.
TVOTR is an art-rock, doo-wap and post-punk five-piece from Brooklyn's hotbed of hip, Williamsburg. The band consists of Tunde Adebimpe (vocals), Kyp Malone (vocals, guitar), David Andrew Sitek (guitar, synthesizer, producer), Jaleel Bunton (drums) and Gerard Smith (bass). Adebimpe, Malone and Sitek released the debut EP Young Liars in 2003 before adding Bunton and Smith to fill out their signature epic sound at live performances. The band put out a full-length album Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes in 2004 and followed it with their critically lauded major-label debut Return to Cookie Mountain in 2006. Though TVOTR received considerable praise for Return to Cookie Mountain—Rolling Stone and Pitchfork.com both named it one of the top five albums of 2006—they decided to take some time off to find inspiration for their new record.
"I don't know how much of an objective view we have of the band as an entity in the world," explains Malone. "It happens when it happens, when it needs to happen. And so it needed to happen. We needed to come together and make more stuff."
And those two years have had a marked effect on the group's sound. While Return to Cookie Mountain was a hard-hitting, apocalyptic battle cry with droning guitars, vocal loops and a wall-of-sound dissonance, Dear Science, emerges from the rubble with a newfound subtlety and nuanced orchestration.
"I feel like this is the first record where I feel like four minutes is like [an accomplishable] feat," says Malone. "I've been looking at four minutes or three-and-a-half minutes as a super, super short song. I've been trying to understand the medium of the pop [song] and figure out how to make that my own."
To move the band from seven-minute art-rock anthems to more condensed pop songs, Malone has been listening to everything from Motown to R&B to meandering free jazz. Working closely with band member and Yeah Yeah Yeah's producer Sitek, TVOTR has crafted a 50-minute barrage of fuzzy post-punk songs, danceable electronic gems and moving orchestral masterpieces. "Halfway Home" starts the record out with a welling sense of doom that's quickly diffused by a poppy "ba ba baa baa ba" vocal track and hand claps. Adebimpe's buttery bellow comes in to echo the words "your lazy way / they turn your head / into a rest stop for the dead."
Though songs like "Halfway Home" infuse Dear Science, with a foot-tapping energy, it's the emotional, orchestral songs like "Family Tree" that show TVOTR's more mature and contemplative side. "Family Tree" starts out with a soft piano and strings that slowly build. Adebimpe is soon joined by longtime contributor Katrina Ford to sing, "We're lying in the shadow of your family tree / your haunted heart and me / brought down by an old idea whose time has come." Three-fourths of the way through, bass drums and violins build the song into a goosebump-inducing crescendo.
"The song as you hear it right now, I'm really psyched about it. I think it is really beautiful ... Hearing Tunde's voice floating in space, I think it's really effective," says Malone.
Though songs like "Family Tree" and the album's final, Pied Piper-like tune "Lover's Day" are more subtly epic and orchestral than the Return to Cookie Mountain single "Wolf Like Me," Malone is confident that Dear Science, has a handful of tracks with single potential.
"I don't think there's a 'Wolf Like Me' for this album, I feel like there's a bunch of different songs that could occupy the space of a single. I think that 'Golden Age' is one of them."
"Golden Age" is one of two songs from Dear Science, TVOTR released on their Web site before the album officially hits shelves on Tuesday, Sept. 23. The song starts out with a thumpy bass beat and the brassy shudder of high-hat cymbals, reminiscent of Michael Jackson's "Gotta Be Startin' Somethin'." In the chorus, Adebimpe is joined by a horn section, crooning "the age of miracles / the age of sound / there's a golden age coming 'round / coming 'round / coming 'round." Though Dear Science, seems to be the band's more hopeful, major-chord response to Return to Cookie Mountain's foreboding, atmospheric doom, it's anything but vapid. The album brims with TVOTR's prudent intellectualism and resists the pop format's penchant for oversimplification. When asked what he thinks this golden age might look like, Malone hesitates for a moment, then responds:
"I feel like maybe progress would be like, when you sit down with your family to eat, or with your lover to eat, and it's not full of poison," explains Malone. "Not having to worry about what stuff's in the water and not having to worry about where you're going to put your garbage ... I don't want to be politically active, I want to live an active and creative life."
TV on the Radio plays with Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson, Friday, Sept. 12, 8 p.m. $19. Knitting Factory, 416 S. Ninth St., 208-367-1212, bo.knittingfactory.com.