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TV on the Radio’s Nine Types of Light: No Answers to Big Questions

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By J Freitag on June 2, 2011

When we were drafting our witty (and insightful!) banter about the best albums of early 2011 (Part I & Part II), my co-contributor and I divvy’d up some then-forthcoming releases for reviews. He got Panda Bear’s Tomboy and Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues. I got TV on the Radio’s Nine Types of Light and Battles’ Gloss Drop. Now that three of those four have hit the street (the Battles record comes out next week), I can say that his are great-er than mine.

And mine are both really hard to write about, at least for me. I caved and gave my co-contributor what I kinda assumed would be the best two records of that bunch because he’s a big fan of cute, furry animals, while I prefer television, radio, and war. Kidding, of course, but he does like Panda Bear and Fleet Foxes more than I do (and I like them plenty). And he’s more familiar with their stuff, so I figured that his reviews of their albums would be stronger.

Thing is, he’s probably also more familiar with TVOTR and Battles, too. Though I’ve heard everything all those bands have done, I don’t know their discographies as well as I need to when I’m talking to you guys. Context is everything, and it detracts from whatever authority/credibility I’ve earned with you to discuss a track or a record in isolation, and not within a larger body of work. And then there’s the hook – sorta what journos used to call the lead (or lede). I try to intro each review with something to grab your attention, which often doubles as an overarching point or theme – and hopefully situates the artist or the album into a broader conversation about music generally.

This is where all the gooey postructuralist stuff I mention from time to time gets watered down by the consumable nature of art. Yeah, everybody’s interpretation of, and commentary upon, art are as valid as everybody else’s, but everybody’s resources are limited.  So critics…uh…criticize, and help the rest of us figure out where to direct our energies.

The problem, obviously, becomes one of time, or timeliness. Forthcoming releases become new releases, new releases become not-so-new releases, and once that happens, who cares, right? Before I even start to write one of these things, I do a lot of listening. Nine Types of Light came out April 11th, and here I am almost two months later, still putting it on my iPod during my commutes, along with their last two albums (2006’s Return to Cookie Mountain and 2008’s Dear Science), and still puttering away on a review that at this point is looking a lot more like a process piece. Frankly, I’m ready to move on. But I definitely appreciate this record in ways I didn’t when I first heard it. In a nutshell: Nine Types of Light is very, very good.

When we last heard from the Brooklyn art-rockers, they were closing Dear Science with “Lover’s Day,” where guitarist and co-lead singer Kyp Malone promised his partner, inter alia, “I’m gonna take you, I’m gonna shake you, I’m gonna make you cum.” The raw carnality of that line is tempered by the sweetness of the closing line, another vow, “I’m gonna take you home.” By the time you get to the oddly-touching marching band coda, you kinda want to page through your calendar and put stars and hearts and your favorite person’s initials somewhere, just to save the date.

Well, they’re back, and it’s still about love. Maybe even moreso. In fact, almost every song mentions love or lovers. Which is cool. Also cool: Every song has a video, which the band has compiled into a film.

Nine Types of Light opens with a track called “Second Song,” where Malone’s vocal partner, Tunde Adebimpe, first catalogs some of his strengths and weakness, then refers to the pre-epiphany moment “when there’s music all around me and I haven’t got a single word to say.” That’s an apt description of listening to the song: It surrounds you, but defies easy description. It’s calm, but it’s busy. It’s confessional, but it’s general. It’s hymn-like, but it’s aggressive. The guitars drop in, as rhythmic as the drums, and click thru another verse and a series of ooh-oohs, then the music opens up, and in comes Adebimpe’s falsetto, instructing, “Every lover on a mission, shift your known position, into the light.”

Keep Your Heart,” continues the theme. Over handclaps and stuttery beat, Malone asks, “How am I gonna keep your heart?” It’s a legit question, one that reminds us that falling in love is easy, but staying in love isn’t, especially when there’s so much change around us. Malone insists he “tried all the new designs, [and] still ended up in love.” By the end of the song, his question has become a statement: “I’m gonna keep your heart, with the world all falling apart, I’m gonna keep your heart.” “You” is a breakup song – sad, but elegaic. Adebimpe, over a scratchy beat and buzzy synths, narrates us through a failed relationship, where his sig other threw her hands up and walked way. He sounds honestly confused when he announces, “You’re the only one I ever loved.” This is really swoony stuff.

The conventional wisdom about TVOTR as art-rock rabble-rousers is based on their early material. So Nine Types of Light, imo, has caught some reviewers off-guard. It’s smooth, often pretty, even graceful at times, where their previous records were aggressive and prickly affairs, packed with quasi-political songs (“Wolf Like Me” from Return to Cookie Mountain, “DLZ” from Dear Science). This is where I should mention the band’s hiatus. After wrapping the Dear Science tour, the band took a six-month break and got together in L.A., new hq for resident multi-instrumentalist/sonic-alchemist Dave Sitek. Maybe the change of scenery affected the songwriting?

It’s not so much that the racially diverse band has mellowed in this purportedly post-racial America, but that it’s concerned less with external problems and more with internal solutions. In a recent interview with Pitchfork.com, Adebimpe admitted that he has no answers to big questions, but he knows that “being upset without having an avenue to fix anything is a real hard place to be in for too long.” (Fwiw, this is precisely the same sentiment that Robin Pecknold seems to express in the title track on Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues.)

So “No Future Shock” breaks the amorous mood. It’s like an urban “Rock Lobster” for the aughts. Instead of a wigged-out underwater adventure with Team Schneider, we get Kyp & Co., sleeping with guns and living better through chemistry – if not happy, then at least high. Instead of pirhanas and narwals, who pose some sort of inchoate threat that makes us lay on the floor when the music gets quiet, we get multinats copping a feel on Mother Nature before robbing her blind, while we’re encouraged to “shake it like it’s the end of time.” Ok?

Adebimpe’s “Killer Crane” straddles the front and back sides of the album. Six minutes of banjo, effects, low hum atmospherics, it’s symphonic in its conception, and captures the band in big picture mode, abandoning first-person angst for something more collective – “all memory of what was mine, fading away” – and the liberation of leaving somewhere unafraid. And his “Will Do” is amazing – a plea to a love for any time, and a belief in the power of words to bring someone back.

Then Malone returns with “New Cannonball Blues,” another aggressive and, for lack of a better word, funky track, with syncopated drums, sleezy synths, multi-tracked vocals, and horns at the end. “Repetition” is an itchy non-starter, until it drops its ambient-Eno-ness and slips into something more Taking Tiger Mountain-y.  “Forgotten” is aptly titled. But the album ends with its best song, “Caffeinated Consciousness.” The riff kinda reminds me of EMF’s “Unbelievable,” but this isn’t about a girl. It’s about megaquaking and hellashaking our present because there might not be a future.  For a first step in that direction, there’s nothing wrong with love.

Recommendation: Get it. And watch the film/videos.

Oh, and I’m not sure if I’ll review the Battles record. The single is fun – and has a nsfw-ish video – and the album comes out next week.  But I’d still like to tell you about the new EMA and Bon Iver records, which are out, and ripening. More soon!

J Freitag enjoys hyperlinking as much as he loves music. Read his full Liner Notes archive here.

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