TV on the Radio
Nine Types of Light
If there was a more exciting opening salvo last decade than TV on the Radio’s “Wrong Way,” I don’t know what it could have been. The opening collision of those horns and that insistent bass. The emergence of Tunde Adebimpe’s fragile, uncertain vocals, speaking that crazed refrain: “Woke up in a magic nigger movie/ With the bright lights pointed at me/ As a metaphor.” You remember it, don’t you? You remember what it ignited in you? That feeling that you were hearing something truly new and monstrous, that this was a future worth fighting for.
TV on the Radio got smart, though, and in the intervening years traded in their fuzzed-out bass and metronomic beats for a set-up to match their epic ambition. What was once a Brooklyn duo operating out of some crazy loft that also managed to give us the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Liars expanded into a big ol’ Rock band with all the baggage that capital R brings with it. They found fans (and collaborators) in folks like David Bowie. They became important. And while there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the little group that could becoming the “American Radiohead,” it’s just so hard to listen to Nine Types of Light, as good as it is, and not miss the gloriously minimalist style that once defined the band, that once made them seem like the type of outfit that could really change the world.
Part of that is because Dave Sitek, long the group’s secret weapon, coats Nine Types of Light in a decidedly ’80s sheen this time out. Gone is the dirty, punkish aggression of Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes and follow-up Return to Cookie Mountain. In is an even more decadent take on Dear Science’s glittery disco stomp and New Romantic posing. There’s more muscle to confusingly titled album opener “Second Song” than there might have been on tracks like “Golden Age” but all through its transformation from falsetto-led raving to a piano-and-handclaps breakbeat interlude, it’s extremely clear that Sitek has traded in his Martin Hannett obsession for a Trevor Horn fixation.
And to a certain extent it works. “You” does a great job juggling the band’s minimalist origins and their newfound interest in carefully coordinated pop songcraft. The synths buzz and the bass gnaws at your skull but the sweetness of Adebimpe’s voice and the single note simplicity of the main guitar line balance those traits out in a way that just connects. “No Future Shock” approaches things differently, instead building up a maelstrom of sound where hummable lines only periodically emerge from the clatter, granting the song an unpredictable danger that makes it easy to return to.
Where Sitek’s throwback approach doesn’t work as well are the moments where he is most obtrusive. As a piece of songwriting, “Will Do” is one of the album’s finest outings, but the distraction of the song’s derivative, over-processed beat is nearly enough to derail the entire enterprise. Adebimpe’s vocal and the prominent placement of a threatening bassline keep things together but it’s nearly impossible not to ask yourself how much better the track would sound live, with more improvisation and acoustic drums. Faring far better is “New Cannonball Run,” which is perhaps the closest the band comes to returning to Desperate Youth, mining that album’s template of buzzy bass and repetitive drumming with a standardly excellent Adebimpe vocal over the results.
Everything that’s wrong with Nine Types of Light can be easily found in the album’s finale, “Caffeinated Consciousness.” Produced in a way that should make it easy for Trevor Horn to claim royalties, “Caffeinated Consciousness” is all bombast and blunt spectacle. Like that producer’s attempt to return Yes to relevance with “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” the song features rhythm pad samples duking it out with thick power chords and a vocal that’s as much sales pitch as it is melody. And then towards the end, it suddenly heads squarely for Peter Gabriel territory.
Nine Types of Light is ultimately a strong effort from a band that is in the unfortunate position of carrying the weight of a generation on their shoulders. As unfair as it may be to expect TV on the Radio, and Sitek in particular, to remain ahead of trends rather than smack dab in the middle of them, that’s simply the stakes these artists have raised. The bright lights are still painted at TV on the Radio but that metaphor may be a little more real this time through.
by Nick Hanover