An exact science
In ‘Dear Science’ TV On The Radio have finally delivered on the early promise of their EP ‘Young Liars’ with the dazzling art-rock album they’ve long threatened but somehow neglected to deliver. Although ‘Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes‘ and ‘Return To Cookie Mountain‘ had some great individual songs, overall I found them frustratingly dense records, overproduced and overwrought. ‘Dear Science’, however, finds the band in fine, funky fettle. The songs, in themselves of a higher quality, have been freed from producer Dave Sitek’s sometimes stifling more-is-more approach. Despite being a record of much bitter anger (political or otherwise) and grief, conversely they have also delivered their most open album with a lightness of touch not always previously apparent.
‘Halfway Home’ seems an odd choice as opening number, being one of the album’s darker, more melodramatic tracks. Building slowly over heavily reverbed guitars, burbling barbershop harmonies and droning synths, the falsetto chorus melodies send shivering sparks through the listener. By contrast ‘Crying’ is funky art-pop which adds increasing layers of sonic ephemera – guitar, glockenspiel, synthesised slap bass, oriental-sounding synths and finally brass – to brutalist, Massive Attack-esque percussion. ‘Dancing Choose’, which flips between angry half-raps and blissfully catchy choruses, feels fresh and effortless in a way that their previous albums couldn’t sustain.
‘Stork & Owl’ begins as broken soul in the mould of Cookie Mountain’s ‘I Was A Lover’, before orchestral elements gradually impose themselves, turning the fractured drones into a warped chamber pop ballad with a hint of Bowie. The spectre of David Bowie – a former collaborator – hangs over much of the album: Red Dress, for example, is like the Thin White Duke fronting for Herbie Hancock. On this track and others I found myself wondering when TVOTR became such a tight jazz-funk act. Or is there a certain amount of smoke and studio mirrors involved? In any case Golden Age is a perfect amalgam of Timbaland’s digital funk (or even Michael Jackson) and Scary Monsters-era Bowie, the chorus of which could easily be a long-lost track by the great man.
While the sombre, piano-led balladry of ‘Family Tree’ seems suspiciously sentimental at first, a closer look at the lyrics suggest otherwise. ‘Love Dog’ revisits this downcast mood but to better effect: pirouetting vocals, violins, horns and electronics bleeding blissfully together over a sputtering, locomotive beat. There is more to talk about of course, but while I don’t think it’s unfair to suggest that the second half of the album fails to live up to that of their first, it is almost certainly their best yet, and a strong contender for end-of-year lists.