The first lines of album opener “Second Song” say it all: “Confidence and ignorance approved me/Define my day today/I tried so hard to shut it down like an oath/Gently walk away.” Some bands let the pressures of success affect them, while others shrug it off and keep on churning out records that reach peak after peak. Brooklyn’s TV On the Radio emphatically embodies the second category on their fourth album Nine Types of Light, another crown jewel in a discography that puts them on par with Radiohead as the Pixar of modern rock, seemingly invulnerable to a failed endeavor.
The label of “art rock” carries with it the expectation that a band can be lyrically articulate and insightful along with sculpting arresting soundscapes. Away from the mainstream, entertaining but highly manicured bubblegum nonsense of most pop music, TV On the Radio stands as a monument to intelligent rock able to craft a catchy melody, lush arrangements, and have singer Tunde Adebimpe’s unmistakable croon lofting over the whole thing.
Nine Types of Light adheres closer to the shimmering, inviting production quality of 2009’s critically-acclaimed Dear Science. It is less adventurous than critical breakthrough Return to Cookie Mountain, but this is no slight to the record: it simply veers more towards the slicker sounding Science, with an even finer sheen this time around. Whereas Cookie Mountain was a difficult album to get through, Nine Types of Light is much easier to digest. It’s a fantastic introduction to the band; an easy way into their sound that creates helpful stepping-stones back to previous albums to discover TV On the Radio’s more ambitious work. Instead of the hyper-intellectual, layered, and distant but stunningly ambitious early work, Nine Types of Light strips away even more of the weight of seriousness that hung over Cookie Mountain, and it’s enlightening to hear the band playing around in the extra space. It bears noting that the album is also insanely catchy and fun, a raucous good time that rattles and threatens to break loose.
It’s hard work picking out highlights within Nine Types of Light’s ten tracks, because although the songs occupy varied degrees of the band’s sound, never repeating each other to the point of banality, the simple fact of their high quality makes pointing out the high water marks nearly impossible. Album centerpiece “Killer Crane” feels as fragile as origami, riding along with the tension of hummingbird wings for its first half, then gliding down to earth in its second movement on strings. “Will Do” is a darkly sexy romance that hums on the strength of the rhythm section as Adebimpe sings out an unwanted come-on, realizes the rejection, but still follows up by offering to hook up anytime. On the back end of the record, “Repetition” barrels ahead like a runaway train, picking up momentum as the lyrics tell the story of cyclical corporate exploitation of the economy.
TV On the Radio shifts gears with surgical precision, building tension only to have it burst into relaxed relief for a few minutes before starting the cycle all over again. Not just masters of crafting a song, TV on the Radio has managed to sequence an album that moves quickly when it has an excess energy and takes the proper time to rest to sustain the impression of tight focus for the entire record.
Elsewhere, on “Second Song” when Adebimpe simply states, “When there’s music all around me [...] I haven’t got a single word to say” amidst the incessantly catchy funk of the bass line, nobody should believe him. The band has plenty important and insightful things to say, and beautiful music to go along with Adebimpe’s wonderful voice. We’re just lucky to have another group that can get out what needs to be said with a sonic environment crafted in such a way to make it all come off so effortlessly.
Final Grade: A-