20 January 2009

dear science (part 4)

If you know me, you'd probably figure that the second I found out there was a band called TV On The Radio, and they'd just released an album called Return to Cookie Mountain, I'd have jumped at it like a lemming does at water. Well, you'd be right. The part of the story that you wouldn't expect, I reckon, is that despite my very best, well-intentioned efforts, I couldn't get into it. I figured it was "good," in that Pitchfork way that things are good, but nothing really jumped out and grabbed me (and there's so much out there in the movie/book/music/tv show/video game/theatre/stand-up comedy/poetry/live sculpture world that it's almost unjustifiable for something, anything, to not do some amount of work to at least grab your attention - of course, the band already did that little bit of work with their name, and the name of their record) and said, "If you work to understand this, you will be rewarded!"

This isn't to say that I'm yet another victim of the attention span recession, just that I have to get something of an indicator from a less-than-accessible... anything that working at understanding it will be worth my time (Leslie Stevens' Incubus, or Alan J. Pakula's The Parallax View, or, more recently, Stuart Gordon's Stuck and Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavillion, for instance, fall into that all-important category). Return to Cookie Mountain, for good or for ill, just got pushed aside. I certainly want to go back to it at some point, particularly now that I've fallen for Dear Science as hard as I have.

Looking back at albums I particularly enjoy, a common thread many seem to have in their construction is an absolute knockout of an opening track (it kind of fits with the first rule of mixtapes that I developed on my own, and later had confirmed by John Cusack/Rob Gordon in High Fidelity). Look at my albums from this year: Harps and Angels, Med Sud..., 808s & Heartbreak, Dear Science, United Nations; all of them feature fantastic opening tracks that cast shadows any reasonable band would have to fight hard to escape (and all do, but that's not entirely here nor there, nor even here again).

This is all meant to indicate that Dear Science's opening track, "Halfway Home," is a triumphant five-and-a-half minutes of music, blending nonsense singalong with some of the most gorgeously articulate wordsmithing I've seen in a song in years ("A comfort plush all laced in lead/ Was sent to quell your sentiment/ And keep your trembling sentinel hand at bay"), soaring synthesizers with ripping, rocking guitars, all colliding together for about fifty seconds of pure, well, music. It's smart, it's glorious, it's... danceable, somehow.

[I should DIGRESS for a moment to explain that, while I absolutely adore TV On The Radio now, this newfound affection will do nothing, nothing at all, to reawaken my comatose interest in The Mars Volta, a band to whom I've heard them compared on more than one occasion, due, I guess, to the multi-racial makeup of their membership, their "genre-pushing" music, and the technical skill that they so clearly possess. I guess this is going to relate back to my abbreviated rant about how things - difficult, complex things - need to indicate that they're going to be worth the time it takes to unravel them, because I also think that, in this multimedia age where there's just so much to absorb (and sure, a lot of it is terrible, but a good deal of it is extraordinary, as well), the ability to make your point well and quickly is one worth cultivating. The longest song on Dear Science is five minutes and fifty-four seconds long; the longest track on The Mars Volta's latest album, The Bedlam in Goliath, is nine minutes and eight seconds. "Cassandra Gemini," on Frances the Mute, is thirty-two and a half minutes long. TV On The Radio know how to get their point across without wasting my time; one of The Mars Volta guys (don't care to remember who) said that he considered being called self-indulgent a compliment. He who recognizes the audience will get more love in my book, if that matters at all. END DIGRESSION]

"Crying" and "Dancing Choose" give TV On The Radio (to save time, let's abbreviate it TVOTR, okay?) lead vocalist Tunde Adebimpe ample opportunity to demonstrate his versatility and range, and boy, he doesn't disappoint. "Stork & Owl" may well contain one of the most simple and powerful truths recorded in 2008: "
Death's a door/ That love walks through/ In and out, in and out/ Back and forth, back and forth." The omnipresent string section does a phenomenal job of bringing life to the tidal imagery that's all over the lyrics.

"Golden Age" takes the record into funky, disco-y territory, a move that feels so right it can't even be rightly recognized for the craziness it truly is. It just sounds so... positive, so goddamn hopeful that it can't be repressed. The horn section, laid so perfectly over the fuzzy thrum that persists throughout the last half of the song, could beat back any encroaching darkness that persists. Parts of the song I could've reasonably expected to hear blasted over loudspeakers at the inauguration, but particularly this:

Now we're all allowed to breathe/
Walls dissolve/
With the hunger and the greed/
Move your body/
You've got all you need/
And your arms in the air stir a sea of stars/
And oh here it comes and it's not so far"

This "Golden Age" that Adebimpe repeatedly promises is nearly upon us sounds very much like the post-Shrub era that so many of us around the world have hoped and prayed for for far, far longer than we would've liked, doesn't it?

This is contrasted pretty abruptly with the following track, "Family Tree," which weds death to marriage about as well as anything ever could (including the fairly fantastic movie pitch that my friend made to me a few weeks ago - perhaps we have a theme song? Probably not, this song is a bit too much of a downer for a slasher film). The... character, I suppose, doesn't sound regretful, mournful, or even the slightest bit angry about the development that manifests itself over the course of the song (in fact, the music gets more upbeat as it goes along, but that's not exactly the vocal part, now is it?), just... resigned, or maybe even accepting. I still don't quite know what to make of that (unless it's another commentary on "love," which so much of art is).

"Red Dress" is certainly one of the most energetic condemnations of, well, most of America that I've ever heard:

Read my names on your lips/
When the man cracks the whip/
And you'll all shake your hips/
And you'll all dance to this/
Without making a fist/
And I know that it sounds mundane/
/But it's a stone cold shame/
How they got you tame, and they got me tame"

It's certainly a more creative way of calling us all sheep, but if it's got wool and is docile to the point of self-destruction, well, a sheep's a sheep (except for those fuckers in Black Sheep; they looked ready to take the power back). At least the music is an incitement to action (going back to the form/content thing I harped on with regards to 808s & Heartbreak).

"Love Dog" takes the band into a quieter, more introspective territory, while "Shout Me Out" is probably as close to U2 as TVOTR is ever going to get (Joshua Tree U2, not HTDAAB U2) - The Edge would be proud of the last two minutes. "DLZ" turns their fury onto the most appropriate target any artist could ever ask for, the towering, crashing assault of sound finally giving way to exhaustion:

Congratulations on the mess you made of things;/
On trying to reconstruct the air and all that brings./
And oxidation is the compromise you own/
But this is beginning to feel like the dog wants her bones
Never mind/
Death professor/
Your structure's fine/
My dust is better/
Your victim flies so high/
All to catch a bird's eye view of who's next"

I think it's a bit overdone to refer to this band, especially that band's lyricist/vocalist, as articulate and intelligent (particularly in light of this past election season, when the entire country finally realized those were code words), but it's impossible to avoid them when talking about TVOTR. Adebimpe doesn't go halfway with his words; you hear every one of them burst forth clearly, and with such power, that they cannot possibly be denied, particularly here.

All of the frustration, passion, agony and ecstasy that have consumed the band and its album come to a head in the final track, "Lover's Day," and get released as TVOTR pulls out all the stops, deploying what can almost feel like every instrument in the known world to support a song that I can only describe by going back in time to the final Planes Mistaken for Stars show and copping what their lead singer said about the song "Little Death" - "a song about fucking." Except, "Lover's Day" may well be the end-all, be-all song about fucking, a song about fucking to put all other songs about fucking to shame (and now, friend reader, you see where I was going with the first sentence in this paragraph. You see all too well, don't you?).

In the spirit of the song, which neither burns out, nor fades away, but stops at the perfect time, in such a decisive way, I'm going to end this posting with a final quotation, from the end of "Lover's Day." I conjure it'll make my point for me:

We’ll smash the walls,/
Break the bed,/
And crash the floors, don’t!/
Stop! Laugh and scream!/
And have the neighbors call the cops!/
'till all the eyes that they've seen our fire play!!/
Can't forget,/
Mark it down,/
Call it Lover's Day!!/
Yes here of course there are miracles./
Under your sighs and moans./
I'm gonna take you,/
I'm gonna take you home."

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