TV on the Radio have always been more straightforward than people give them credit for. Despite their copious genre-bending and experimental studio murk, the band keeps their amps firmly plugged into pop sensibility, something that’s been further explored with each of their subsequent releases. 2008’s Dear Science saw their apocalyptic imagery and frontman Tunde Adebimpe’s ghostly diverse vocals swirling with celebratory funk bombast, making for a sonic juxtaposition that was as twisted as it was fun, a macabre party that every lupine listener was invited to. Their latest release, Nine Types of Light, continues to explore their ever-increasing accessibility with infectious results, albeit with more sonic sparseness and optimistic lyrics. It’s not the band’s most profound album (we’ll leave that distinction to the thunderously weird anthems of Return to Cookie Mountain), but the sound of them settling into success and a lucid groove is something to be admired.
Whereas every other TVOTR opener has begun with multi-layered vocals and violently abstract, often angry words, the ironically titled “Second Song” sees Adebimpe welcoming a more positive outlook. For once, his voice is crystal clear; we can hear every lyric of coherent affirmation. Gone are the tales of doomed love and a crumbling society, replaced with mantras such as “May I illuminate the nameless saints of this out and open grace.” Quietly lurking second singer Kyp Malone and musical Renaissance man David Andrew Sitek bolster the sunny feelings with multi-layered falsettos and chugging horn arrangements during the chorus.
The album treads into unabashedly sentimental territory with the Asian grace-infused “Keep Your Heart” and gentle dub stylings of “You”, two back-to-back cuts that see Adebimpe gushing out warm and fuzzy musings to a significant other. “All of these blues I’ve cried soon will come undone/tried the new designs, still ended up in love,” he croons on the former; it’s the sound of a man who’s forsaken societal and internal cataclysms for a little bit of middle-aged romance. This drastic shift in lyrical content could come across as maudlin from any other band, but TVOTR keeps their instrumentation appropriately funky, even during the album’s slower moments. The songs never reach the endless wall of sound heights of “Crying” or “I Was a Lover”, but there’s enough economical diversity in the majestic keys and digital tribal beats from multi-instrumentalists Gerard Smith and Jaleel Burton to keep listeners captivated. Hell, “Killer Crane” embraces the newfound serenity by bringing acoustic guitar, bongos, steel drum, and (gasp!) banjo to a slow, stacking buildup and climax that may be the most gorgeous thing the band has ever recorded.
“No Future Shock” and “New Cannonball Blues” are more prototypical cuts for the band — upbeat Parliament-esque whirlwinds that detail lyrically obtuse spirals into defeat. However, the choruses provide some sense of positive catharsis, as if the only way to overcome chronic glumness is to dance your way out of it. When Adebimpe howls, “Do the no future! Do the no future!”, you can’t help but picture some isolated soul spastically cutting a rug in their room. “Repetition” converts paranoia into a jubilee, its breakneck speed and syncopated vocals encouraging sad sacks to indulge in acts of reckless abandon with total strangers.
“Forgotten” is the album’s only completely downtrodden track — a bass-heavy, minimalist, electronic description of a destroyed Beverly Hills. But even Adebimpe’s descriptions of nuclear winter fail to bring down the optimistic atmosphere, especially when the words come directly before the album’s closer, the inspiring roof shaker “Caffeinated Consciousness”. Here we see the band at their maximalist best — stomping percussion, yelping vocals, video game guitar, flourishing horn bursts, and Adebimpe instructing listeners to “drop yourself with no concern on how to breathe when your mind is burned,” as if leading a space-age, funk-laden “Hokey Pokey”. It’s an apt finish to an album rife with otherworldly positivity, a record that keeps an eye to a refracted sun without ever being false or corny. You believe that the band feels this good, and given their creative freedom, escalating success, and near flawless discography, they probably do.
Feature artwork by Cap Blackard.