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TV On The Radio: Complicated 'Science'

In 2006, TV on the Radio began its acclaimed Return to Cookie Mountain with a strange, striking synth riff, followed by Tunde Adebimpe's falsetto moan: "I was a lover / before this war." It's a strong lead that sets a somber personal-is-political tone — seven simple words that say an enormous amount.

"Halfway Home," the opening song on TV on the Radio's new album, Dear Science, also starts with a bang. It's like the band is folding New Order's "Age of Consent" into The Trashmen's "Surfin' Bird." And the lyrics — "The lazy way they turned your head / into a rest stop for the dead" — are moderately clever, if strained. But to me, the line "And did it all in gold and blue and gray" means nothing and evokes nothing. Later in the song come even clunkier lines.

I care about lyrics for the tone they set, as well as for the themes they establish. Verbally, this first song implies that Dear Science will be labored and ungainly. Musically, however, that doo-wop hook hints that this could be TV on the Radio's most melodic and funky record ever. In the end, that's what we get.

Midway through the album, there's a Prince homage in "Golden Age," and there's some David Bowie in there, too. But this is not pop dance-music-sex-romance; it has a sourness to it. Lyrically, the album clears up as it proceeds. But always there's off-putting verbiage such as a bit about grace ascending like a snake up a tree. The off-putting stuff is there for a reason — namely, to put us off.

TV on the Radio is sick of living with pessimism, and the band wants to move forward musically and commercially. These guys have brightened their tunes and their beats on Dear Science. It's easily the finest and most accessible record of a distinguished career. But they haven't escaped the darkness, especially as they beg God for relief in "Shout Me Out."

Clearly, TV on the Radio is conflicted. Both literally and metaphorically, the war continues. Adebimpe and company don't want to wallow in misery, so they brighten up. But four of the five members of TV on the Radio are African-American, and they're obviously aware that transcending misery through entertainment has been the job of African-Americans in the U.S. since the days of blackface minstrelsy. So it's fitting that the strongest track on Dear Science confronts this issue in so many words. "Red Dress" epitomizes an album where ease always contends with difficulty, and fun can't swallow substance.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Robert Christgau
Robert Christgau contributes regular music reviews to All Things Considered.