opinion byPETER TABAKIS < @ptabakis >
Tunde Adebimpe sings the following words on “Careful You,” an early track on TV on the Radio’s new album: “There is a softness to your touch/ There is a wonder to your ways.” In the context of the song, his couplet, sung over a restless dance beat and sheathed in openhearted vocal overdubs and warm electronic tones, is directed at a lover. However, the lyric could just as easily describe the artistic approach found on Seeds, TVOTR’s tremendously rewarding fifth studio LP. This sound – once hinted at and now made fully explicit, so easygoing and marvelous – is a breakthrough for the group. Seeds marks a crucial shift for TVOTR: a clean break from (pop-inflected) art rock and into (arty) pop rock. The band is no stranger to earworms, but they have previously been sent through winding song structures. TVOTR now serves its hooks upfront, without fuss. It’s a thrilling turnabout, even though some will grumble that complexity has been sacrificed for catchiness, the dirtiest of terms in the Rock Critic Lexicon.
Tragedy shook the band shortly after the release of Nine Types of Light (a fine album, generally regarded as a mild disappointment). The loss of bassist Gerard Smith to lung cancer in 2011, during what would become a particularly long hiatus, isn’t addressed in a literal way on TVOTR’s new work. The joyous sense of life that springs forth over and over again on Seeds is, no doubt, a reaction to Smith’s passing, even if the record is unconcerned with death. It instead explores a matter of daily human existence, the downs and ups of love. That last word, written in capital letters and underlined in triplicate, bursts with Art Deco sunbeams throughout these twelve songs.
TVOTR tackles the Many-Splendored Thing with lithe sonic constructions and an excess of vigor. Dave Sitek’s production emphasizes shine, spurns murk, and will surely divide longtime fans. Case in point: Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone’s vocals, which are sometimes tweaked with studio knob-turning and are always pushed to the stark foreground. TVOTR’s fundamental allure – that multi-genre alchemy of electronic throbs, drum syncopations, and guitar shreds – remains as potent as ever. And yet, there’s a workmanlike manner to the album’s weakest tracks. Even at its finest, Seeds (unsurprisingly) falls short of Return to Cookie Mountain and Dear Science’s devilish heights.
But, oh the melodies! Recent interviews with the group have confirmed a songwriting method that’s immediately obvious to the listener: start with a fantastic tune, figure things out from there. “Quartz,” which opens Seeds as if it’s already been playing for a few moments, promptly announces the album’s central theme in the form of a question (“How much do I love you?”) and its technique with a stunning, ascending vocal phrase. Over the course of the following (really, really brisk) 52 minutes, we encounter a whole lot of dance-rock numbers (“Happy Idiot,” “Careful You,” “Right Now,” “Love Stained”), some even masquerading as lovely mid-tempo ballads (“Seeds,” “Trouble,” “Test Pilot”). A little bit of punk snarl (“Winter,” “Lazerray”) and an amphetamine-fueled anthem (“Could You”) are also thrown in for good measure. “Ride,” Seeds’ sprawling centerpiece, integrates many of the above elements and enters the pantheon of TVOTR’s greatest cuts with ease. These songs, no matter their form, primarily feel utilitarian. They are built to deliver a kick to the gut, and they do so remarkably well. Of course, there’s a secondary purpose – to rouse deep emotions. In that sense, Seeds is somewhat less successful. When both purposes align, such as on the Malone-led “Could You” and “Ride,” the results are spectacular. When they don’t, such as on lead single “Happy Idiot” and “Right Now,” a quick retreat to the closest dance floor will have to suffice. There are worse consolation prizes.
Seeds calls to mind two disparate albums released in the last few months. The first is They Want My Soul. I’ve argued that Spoon occupies the rock landscape’s version of purgatory. The band is uninterested in topping the Billboard charts. But it also rejects the widespread rejection of the rock genre’s essentials by its own (critically acclaimed) practitioners. So, TVOTR now joins Spoon as brothers-in-arms in a futile battle. The second album Seeds recalls is 1989. Laugh all you want, but like Taylor Swift, TVOTR has exposed itself to scorn from a devoted fanbase, by taking an unambiguously pop turn. And both happen to be the better for it. I had the pleasure of seeing these songs performed live, just a few hours ago. Past and present didn’t only fit together seamlessly; the latter appeared to revitalize the former. This is hardly shocking. Seeds isn’t TV on the Radio’s strongest album, but it is a radiant reboot, a move forward and a reason to move.