TV on the Radio have always been an oddity in the current indie-rock scene: a multiracial quintet from Brooklyn that’s just as indebted to Parliament as they are to My Bloody Valentine, and that doesn’t hesitate to mix doo-wop vocal harmonies (courtesy of lead vocalists Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone) with the postmodern laptop rock of Kid A/Amnesiac-era Radiohead. Their second album and major-label debut, 2006’s Return to Cookie Mountain, suggested that the group could become a modern-day King Crimson. Certainly guitarist/producer David Sitek has begun filling the Robert Fripp role, earning a reputation as one of indie rock’s great sonic innovators through production work for more well-known artists like Beck and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. They could easily settle into the niche of universally respected innovators who never quite achieved the popularity of those they influenced.
Instead, they’ve made one of the great rock records of the decade, one that is certain to raise their profile among those who maybe don’t read Pitchfork regularly. Return to Cookie Mountain established TV on the Radio as a force to be reckoned with; Dear Science establishes them as one of the four or five best American rock bands today. Cookie Mountain was brilliant and groundbreaking, but it could only be enjoyed in one way: front to back with headphones. Make no mistake, Dear Science sounds great on headphones, but it will sound just as great spilling out of passing car stereos or blaring over the loudspeakers at Major League Baseball games. It’s that rare first-rate art rock record that doubles as a first-rate pop record. The horn and synth layers that would have been hidden details on Cookie Mountain are the hooks on Dear Science. The keyboard line that starts in the last minute of “Crying” slowly builds into the lead instrument, and becomes the thing you remember about the song.
And that’s to say nothing of the songwriting itself, which is stellar throughout. “Dancing Choose” and the stunning, string-laden centerpiece “Family Tree” nearly equal the Cookie Mountain classic “Wolf Like Me.” TV on the Radio have mastered the Arcade Fire technique of slowly building to a climax throughout a song, and they apply those pacing smarts to Cookie Mountain’s Prince-meets-Trent Reznor aesthetic. David Bowie was an early supporter and contributed vocals to the Cookie Mountain standout “Province,” and if that album directly evoked Bowie’s Berlin period, Dear Science goes slightly farther back to the forward-thinking disco of Station to Station. The focus here is not on Sitek’s elaborate production, but rather the killer rhythm section of bassist Gerard Smith and drummer Jaleel Bunton that powers bangers like “Golden Age” and “Red Dress.” Of course, Sitek is also at the top of his game on Dear Science, particularly on the blistering opener “Halfway Home” and “Shout Me Out,” which exists somewhere between Björk’s “Jóga” and Tom Petty’s “Running Down a Dream.”
Dear Science is both an extension and a refinement of TV on the Radio’s previous work, but it may also prove an unlikely successor to Green Day’s American Idiot. Both albums attempt to be all things to all people, and actually succeed. And Dear Science just might prove to define Bush’s second term the way Idiot did his first. TV on the Radio have not made an outright protest album like Green Day did, because in 2008 that would be no more than a statement of the obvious. Rather, the tone of Dear Science is one of frustration and resignation. “Congratulations on the mess you made of things,” Adebimpe croons on the slow-burner “DLZ,” “you force your fire, you falsify your deeds/your methods dot the disconnect from all your creeds.” There’s really nothing else to say at this point, is there?
But for an album this filled with doom and dread, Dear Science ends on an uncharacteristically happy note. “Lover’s Day” is a harmony-laden sex jam that calls for everybody to take the day off work to be with their loved ones. It’s not a bad idea, especially if Dear Science is the soundtrack.