I imagine, from a creative standpoint, the hardest part of being in TV On The Radio — a band adored due in large part to its innovation — is the insane expectation of always doing something new, the ridiculous imaginary standard of never pulling the same trick twice.
But so far, that chameleon-like sensibility is what has made this off-beat art-rock Brooklyn quintet so consistently compelling. From the fractured experimentalism of their 2004 full-length debut, Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes, to the beefed-up, futuristic funk of their last album, 2008’s Dear Science, TV On The Radio have managed to re-define their sound with every go-round. And it just so happens that every new sonic wardrobe they’ve donned has been as lovely as the one before.
When, in 2009, it was announced that the band would be entering an “indefinite hiatus,” it seemed possible that the idea well was running a tad dry. Everybody kept busy, though — vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Kyp Malone released a solo album (Rain Machine) as did producer/sound sculptor Dave Sitek (Maximum Balloon), in addition to his typical array of production projects. But nothing these weirdos whipped together on their own remotely approached the magic they’ve achieved as a unit.
Two-and-a-half years after Dear Science, TV On The Radio have emerged with a new definition of the word “hiatus” (At least they didn’t promise to retire like Jay-Z) and, remarkably, a still fresh and exciting take on their sound. Where Dear Science emphasized groove and density, Nine Types of Light is more restrained and elegant. There’s a sense of nakedness here that renders its results more personal and directly affecting. Sitek’s production is still trippy and headphone-worthy, the songs still arranged in colorful swirls of instrumentation, but the layers are easier to pick apart, the catapulting rhythms and noises given more space to breathe.
The songs themselves are hazier and more insular, less emphatic and far more patient. Acoustic instruments, a first for the band, pop up on occasion — banjo plucks on the slow-building, cathedral atmosphere of “Killer Crane;” acoustic guitars in the Sunday morning soul of “Keep Your Heart”—and the ratio of ballads to bangers is staggering. Lyrics have never been all that much of an issue with these dudes, typically utilized as abstract color: images of wolves and blood and decaying trees. On one Light refrain, Malone sings, “With the world falling apart, I’m gonna keep your heart.” No symbolism in sight.
In chilling out, they come away with an album that fails, for the first time, to slap you across the face. Catharsis is an uphill-climb, not spoon-fed in doles — even when vocalist Tunde Adebimpe indulges in one of his trademark playground-style, fist-pumping raps on the synth-rocker “No Future Shock,” he sounds more glazed-over than pissed-off. But there’s no dip in quality — just a conservative makeover.
They’ve been freaks; they’ve been lover-boys. Now they’re spaced-out romantics.