Countless albums have been written after the passing of a loved one. Albums written after the death of a bandmate come about less often, but they happen. Some of these rage and seethe, tearing at the concept of death, while others wallow in sadness, filling the room with tears. But all of them happen out of necessity, as musicians cope with mortality in the only way they can: creating art, the thing that comes naturally to them, the thing that can theoretically become immortal. TV on the Radio’s latest, Seeds, approaches this task like a long musical hug. Frontman Tunde Adebimpe’s words pat you on the back, never denying the loss but insisting (to the listener, his bandmates, himself) that everything will be OK.
Bassist Gerard Smith died at 36 of lung cancer right around the release of TVotR’s last album, 2011’s Nine Types of Light. After losing a friend and compatriot, whatever they did next would naturally be shaded by his passing and legacy. To hear it from the band, there was a chance that next step might have meant the end of TV on the Radio. Instead, Seeds is the sound of the band’s remaining members working within the reality of their loss. “I’m glad we got it together and took stock of the unique connection we have between each other,” Adebimpe said in a statement accompanying the album. His assessment is that the results are the band’s best work, which for many won’t resonate; it doesn’t have the funky twists and turns of Dear Science or the sinew of Return to Cookie Mountain. But listening to it, it’s clear that this was an album necessitated by the band’s reality, reflecting upon both a desire and an inability to connect with a lost loved one.
These songs don’t explicitly discuss Smith or his absence, but connection and absence as concepts. Opener “Careful You” takes on some of the trappings of a breaking heart, but lingers in a gray area between love and a more general loss. Adebimpe opens in French, professing his love and trying out different ways of saying goodbye, but they don’t connect: “I can’t seem to move away,” he sighs. His lyrics remain vague, relying on open-ended questions in the chorus rather than statements, subtly playing between the words “care for” and “careful.” These are the words of someone who’s just trying to figure things out; the answers don’t necessarily come, either because it’d be too painful to dig deeper or maybe because they’re simply not there. But the questioning is a part of the process too, and Dave Sitek’s bubbling production and Kyp Malone’s hushed harmonies fill out the haze.
(Cover Story: TV on the Radio: Love Stained Troubles)
This middle ground softens the power of the song, lacking the punch of the broken heart or the bleak realization of death. That uncertainty runs through the album. Adebimpe rarely pushes past an easy melancholy into more visceral vocal territory, and the music works in the rounded synths of their last couple albums but lacks their jumpy pulse. Instead, Seeds represents that foggy wandering in between the shock of pain and its resolution, the attempts to piece everything together, to find the good and the bad that come after, to feel every shade. That can come off as a blob of gray paint on the canvas for a band so good at altering their palette; debut Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes was a sculpture of fluorescent tubing and rain-soaked gravel, while Dear Science jumps from violent neons to airy pastels.
But that gray blob feels honest, like the band’s making real attempts at representing those mixed feelings that are so difficult to capture — and sometimes those attempts connect. The jittery “Happy Idiot”, similar to “Careful You”, could describe any sort of loss. Adebimpe bangs his head against the wall just to keep his mind off someone. “What you don’t know won’t hurt you,” he grins in a glaze, the rapid crank of the guitars working against the pain he’s suppressing. Later, “Ride” opens with an overlong, dramatic string and piano intro, but explodes into a deceptively simple statement of connectivity and hope. Adebimpe sings about being “more than only human,” and repeats two key phrases: “Think about the future” and “everyone together.” He’s looking to the sky, but it’s inconsequential whether he’s gazing up at heaven or merely keeping his chin up. This is the sound of someone recognizing they need to move forward.
Part of that song’s chorus, though, is assessing this whole process as the “ride of your life.” Simply put, TV on the Radio have put out more thrilling rides than this one. Stretches of Seeds fade into each other, lacking an emotional hook or a burst of energy. But this is an album as much about getting past the grit as the grit itself. When Adebimpe interpolates Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy” and insists that “everything’s gonna be OK” on “Trouble”, it feels triumphant rather than cheesy. Moving past melancholy into mild acceptance is a real accomplishment, but a difficult one to make compelling for an entire album. Seeds struggles in that regard, but has to be called a success. It’s not their most exciting, magnetic, or powerful record, but it is the one they needed to make.
Essential Tracks: “Happy Idiot”, “Ride”