Dear Science engages with the uncomfortable truth that time is constant and that we hold so little control over the ebb and flow of history.
Kyp Malone said that Dear Science, TV On the Radio’s 2008 album, derived its name from a note fellow band member Dave Sitek had written in the studio during the recording process. “Dear Science,” it read, “Please start solving problems and curing diseases or shut the fuck up.” In the 10 years since, science has grown quieter – not of its own volition but rather because the overwhelming voices asking it to close its mouth have grown more powerful.
Released just a few months before the election of President Barack Obama, Dear Science felt like a stark contrast to the Bush-era furious indignation of 2006’s Return to Cookie Mountain. Where that LP was a jagged, schizophrenic assemblage of post-apocalyptic protest songs, TVOTR’s follow-up was, by comparison, pure pop. The band traded in their fuming art rock for jazzy, funky dance music that topped a lot of year end lists and was lauded for ushering in a new era of hope and change. But anyone who considered the album in some way intrinsically tied to the myth of Obama’s post-racial America just wasn’t listening very closely.
The music is considerably more accessible than anything else the band had released thus far, or in the years since, but lyrically, a different portrait was being painted. For all the danceable rhythms and catchy hooks, de facto frontman Tunde Adebimpe and the aforementioned Malone were singing from a confused, leery perspective directly at odds with the more radio-friendly tenor of their new tunes. It meant that songs like “DLZ” and “Halfway Home” could find sonic real estate on TV shows like “Breaking Bad” and “Skins,” further cementing the band in the mainstream pop cultural consciousness, but that the subject matter at hand would be blissfully ignored by a large subset of new listeners.
Spinning the record anew here in 2018, it’s interesting just how prescient the album’s uneasy underpinnings feel. Take a song like “Dancing Choose,” the brassy, double-time single that, alongside “Golden Age,” heralded this shiny new sound. It’s a breathless and engrossing track with Adebimpe speeding through a litany of paranoid and frustrated thoughts, musings on politics and the overwhelming sense that no one knew how much longer the world would last. He sounds like the emcee of a party held the weekend before Armageddon.
Sitek’s slick and high definition production makes it easy for the groove to take the forefront and distract the listener from all the nervous unrest powering those dancing feet. “DLZ” features some holdover aggression for W and the mess left in the wake of his two terms as Commander-in-Chief, but “Lover’s Day” feels like an anomaly in the band’s discography, an unabashed ode to the power of interpersonal connection, with a sexy underbelly, like one great big afternoon delight in the face of nuclear winter. But no song encapsulates Dear Science’s ethos like “Red Dress.”
“Fuck your war,” it begins, “cause I’m fat and in love and no bombs are falling on me for sure.” This time, the resistance in Adebimpe’s voice is tempered with anxiety, a shaky hand holding up a protest sign while trembling. But he’s not just terrified of what the future holds but rather what his place in it will be, who time will reveal him to truly be. “But I’m scared to death,” he confesses, “that I’m living a life not worth dying for.” The song, ultimately, shouts to take off your white robes and throw your red dress on, to dance on the cinders of the hellscape that’s ending, but even in these moments of defiant celebration, the band knows victory is a fleeting concept.
The end of Bush’s reign didn’t give way to a halcyon age of bliss. It only seems that way in retrospect, and even then only to liberals with short memories tired of living under the fuckery marathon that is Trump. A decade later, Dear Science is an album that so perfectly captures the consternation we feel when we try to turn off the news and find an escape to cocoon ourselves inside of. It engages with the uncomfortable truth that time is constant and that we hold so little control over the ebb and flow of history.
But we have choices to make about ourselves, and on some level, those are the scariest binaries. Not whether or not our leaders are on the right side of decency, but what we will do when we come to grips with the fact that they aren’t.