It’s rare to see anything negative written about TV on the Radio. It’s as if the basic mission of the group accomplished musicians making techy post-punk records with raw-throated soul, art-rock records that feel passionate and committed instead of bloodless and figurative fits so transparently into what we consider “important” that nobody questions it. People argue about TV on the Radio on the level of personal taste (“not really my thing”) or technical detail (“hated the production on that last album”), but I can’t recall ever seeing much debate over the basic idea of them. This is rare, for a band that’s still making records and getting great press; normally there’s some camp, somewhere, that wishes you’d just go away. It’s even slightly suspicious enough to wonder whether more people are impressed by the band’s apparent passion than actually share it.
I’m not sure how that suspicion fits with their latest LP, Nine Types of Light, which more than a few critics have found a little … sleepy. “Sleepy” is a relative term, for this band — many of the songs on Light still hustle and buzz with tension, and they’re as crowded with sonic detail as ever. But it’s true: The band sounds a whole lot calmer than usual on this album, which was recorded after a brief hiatus/vacation and a move from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. The songs are tender, sentimental, and patient. There’s a six-minute lazy-river pastoral called “Killer Crane,” complete with softly plinking banjo. It’s a challenge for anyone who figures calm is the same thing as complacency.
It also feels like a natural progression. TV on the Radio’s great strength has always been obvious: They create an overstuffed, chaotic whirlwind of sound, then let their two singers, Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone, stand tough and commanding in the middle of it. That sets up questions the band’s spent years asking: How do you anchor yourself in the midst of all this chaos and noise? The world loves to watch artists wrestle with questions like that; what we’re oddly skeptical of is the part, a few albums down the line, where they seem to be coming up with boring old answers. The lyrics on Light suggest there’s some kind of apocalypse happening (“Beverly Hills / nuclear winter” — can anyone spend time in L.A. without thinking they’ve found, literally, the end of civilization?), but in every case, the solution is to shrug it off, dance through it, or transcend it with love. The first song on the album is explicitly addressed to “lovers,” and everything else seems pitched to them, too. “If the world falls apart / I’m gonna keep your heart,” sings Adebimpe. “Do the No Future,” sings Malone, turning apocalypse into a dance move. It’s like a class in how to keep calm and centered as the world ends.
For anyone addicted to TV on the Radio’s old restlessness, Nine Types of Light presents an odd test — no longer can you just hang around being impressed by their stylish sound and fury. Enjoying this one involves settling in and getting comfortable with the group, including their idiosyncrasies and flaws. (For instance: It is shockingly rare for anyone in this band to write a tune that really stays in one’s head; even their melodies are the sort of thing you watch admiringly, instead of sharing.) These songs invite you a lot closer to the group than previous records did; suddenly you have to really like the music to appreciate it. Which strikes me, weirdly, as a more likable arrangement than the one TV on the Radio had in the past. It opens them up to new criticisms and accusations of sleepy boredom, sure — but whenever I put this album on, that openness seems preferable to being held at arm’s length. No matter how impressively long that arm might be.