Look, I’m sure that Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly are very good at what they do—they must be doing something right for Stephen Colbert to be earning such a good living off skewering them—but why is America letting pundits tell us everything we need to know about the current state of world affairs? I move that we hand over the rights to leading our nation’s political discourse to the poets among us. We’ll give The Factor to Bono, perhaps, and maybe let The Decemberists take control of The Situation Room. Just make sure we leave plenty of room for TV on the Radio, a Brooklyn-based experimental rock outfit whose second long-player—Return to Cookie Mountain—just might be the most devastatingly honest and raggedly inspirational protest album in a year that was full of them.
You won’t hear any specific references to George Bush or Condoleeza Rice here, nor will you find any broad generalizations or heavy-handed sloganeering about the Iraq War. In fact, the first time you listen, you probably won’t hear much of anything that immediately makes sense. This ain’t a political rally here—this is art-rock. It’s noisy, it’s abstract, and it’s vision can’t be understood in one listen or summarized in one review. But give it time. It’s as experimental as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and as complex as Kid A, but it’s also got some killer grooves and stellar production work that wouldn’t have been out of place on Sign O’ the Times.
It’s an album of forward-thinking vision and creative momentum, but it begins with a look backwards. The first words you hear are vocalists Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone singing “I was a lover before this war,” over a sampled riff that might be majestic were it not so grim and a beat that somehow conjures defeat and resistance at the same time. The lyrics speak to a world in which love has been replaced with paranoia, and fear makes everyone into a stranger:
And we don’t make eye contact,
When we have run-ins in town
Just a barely polite nod,
And nervous stares towards the ground
The song is dense with imagery—references to an apathetic “priest class” that’s been seduced by commerce, and a dictionary of “contemporary slang” to separate the truth from the bullshit—and it sets the tone for an album that isn’t about war in a physical sense so much as in a metaphorical, perhaps even metaphysical sense. The casualties here aren’t limited to flesh and blood, but truth itself has been traded for something easier, something more convenient—a terrifyingly familiar idea in this age of ideological warfare. (And that’s to say nothing of the ominous implications of “Let the Devil In,” which might or might not be referencing contemporary events when it talks about asking forgiveness from a bee that died trying to defend itself from attack.) This isn’t polemics; this is prophecy, and it’s scary because it’s true.
But it isn’t all doom and gloom; lest you think they’re honing in on Radiohead’s territory, TV on the Radio parts the clouds to let in a blindingly bright ray of hope—a spiritual anthem so optimistic and straightforwardly inspiring it could makes its way into a U2 setlist. The song is called “Province,” and Adebimpe and Malone are joined by mentor David Bowie as they turn their attention from the disease to the cure:
Hold your heart courageously
as we walk into this dark place
Stand, stare fast, erect and see
that love is the province of the brave
Just as their darker songs aren’t the sound of sloganeering or dogma, this anthem isn’t one of clichés—it’s something genuinely inspiring. It’s the sound of hope rising out of the chaos, just as the human voices transcend the noisy feedback and synthetic beats. Call it a bloom shooting up through the stony ground. Call it whatever. But don’t miss it.
And don’t think it’s all obtuse, artsy-fartsy stuff—though it’s certainly an adventurous album, it becomes compulsively listenable the more you work your way through it. Even the strangest, noisiest songs are distinctly beautiful at their core; likewise, the weirdest track is also the least dense—“A Method,” with its vocal harmonies and percussive breakdowns, is more like doo-wop than art-rock. It’s surreal, but it’s also catchy. Meanwhile, “Wolf Like Me” has a driving bassline that makes it a sexy, seductive younger cousin of Radiohead’s “The National Anthem”—in fact, it’s one of the most addictive and funky singles you’ll hear all year—even if its lyrics do speak to basic human depravity, using the werewolf as a spooky metaphor:
Got a curse I cannot lift
Shines when the sunset shifts
When the moon is round and full
Gotta bust that box, gotta gut that fish
There are also songs about relationships here—and you’re not gonna want to play them on Valentine’s Day. “Playhouses,” set to a punchy, percussive shuffle, documents a failed romance and a broken home in painfully explicit language:
Yeah we chose these cards
But the weather changed
And the river froze and when it thawed
It was running backwards and dry now
I suppose it’s appropriate to cry now
Over wasted time
And naked lies
It’s unnerving stuff—as is the whole album. When the singers implore you “drop to your knees” and “beg forgiveness” in “Let the Devil In,” you’ll want to oblige them; what they’ve given us here is a gift of conscience and conviction, a megaphone wake-up call for a culture asleep at the wheel, and a reminder that the wickedness of the human heart is great—and love greater still. The album is political but not polemic, personal but without platitudes; and it’s as timely and important a diagnosis of the times we live in as any album released in recent memory.
Josh Hurst, The Hurst Review