Dear Science is a letter on compassion, freedom, great sex, redress, and the end of war. It demands these things unqualified even when it stumbles with awkward metaphors and bulky Latinates. As the album following their 2004 masterpiece, the modest frequency of vivid images rendered rich in sound seems to be enough to keep them to great band status if not lifting them to rock poetry standards of ‘eminently quotable.’
“I was a lover before this war” was the line from their last. All the devastation, heartache, and grasping for a politics that was Return to Cookie Mountain is contained in that opening declaration. Nothing sticks as solidly on Dear Science. It could be in the delivery as neither the reedy croon of Tunde Adabimpe nor the falsetto melisma of Kyp Malone have developed much since last album. Here the two singers went to their respective song-type corners with Adabimpe on melancholy gut-wrenchers and Malone working the up-tempo.
There’s a lot more groove-oriented, tense funk with Afro-beat ensemble Antibalas on the recording, which tends to diminish the weird sound world placed by member/producer Dave Sitek. “Golden Age,” the most optimistic moment of the album, sings of a zeitgeist in sound miracles over a drum-bass groove laid bare in space. There’s no surprise that pal Katrina Ford lends her voice to the tune’s “Heroes” bridge, since her last album with the Celebration (Modern Tribe) touted inspiration gained in the Brooklyn music community. As TVotR are among the most successful of that scene, the “Lover’s Day” dream of a lay so good it deserves a day off and a full marching band could seem a bit of rock star braggadocio. Somehow Malone can sing about it and make it seem like just a normal night in, and a right everyone can exercise.
They were lovers before, and they still are now. It’s just gotten even more complicated as discussed in the piano dirge “Family Tree,” where one side’s hate-filled lineage disrupts a sacred union. Strings here and throughout the album attempt to blend music to storyline with the art rock organicism of say, Kate Bush or Joanna Newsom. They sometime sound superfluous.
When Adebimpe sings of “the gallows” in his lover’s of family tree, it’s hard to ignore the branch that hangs strange fruit as that possible poison. Perhaps this is the evil mother who Malone asks wear an apology, but really the song “Red Dress,” is where TVotR abandons poetry altogether and make explicit their politics. The album’s letter is reformatted for an insidious social scientist – “Hey Jackboot!!!” – and details the band’s temptation to minstrelsy. “‘Hey Slave’ They called. And we caved. We answered. To a new name. Shout it loud. Shout it lame! But blackface it. You’re such a good dancer. You’re such a star,” Malone sings while guitar snakes and congas work double-time. He is shocked to be complicit. “It’s a stone cold shame/How they got you tame/and they got me tame.”
But this album shows TVotR are increasingly not tame. Seeking some redress, they sent us a letter as a great band in a post-band era, a consciously black rock ensemble in a majority white genre, and humble observers in an era of grandiloquence. In this, they follow like Radiohead did from OK Computer to Kid A. While staying close to the ground they examine those words – freedom, love, war, empathy – and give a context for thinking about them fresh. Perhaps they stumble to find a better language for being human than this one we have. Dear language, let’s start over in sound. – Daphne Carr
TV on the Radio performs with the Dirtbombs tonight at the Wiltern
TV on the Radio's video for “Dancing Choose.”