Despite releasing some of this decade’s most anthemic songs (like “Staring at the Sun” and “Wolf Like Me”), TV on the Radio haven’t delivered a cohesive, album-long accomplishment. Sure, Return to Cookie Mountain was a work of a quality we don’t see much of these days, but “Wolf Like Me” stole the show at track five and never gave it back. And Desperate Youth, Bloody Thirsty Babes was too scattered for its own good. The band were like a schizophrenic artist, with paint, clay, stone, crayons, pencils, and wire at their disposal but no real idea of what they wanted to accomplish. TV on the Radio’s third album (officially, it’s their fourth, but OK Calculator hardly counts), Dear Science,, (the first comma is part of the album name) is the band’s most complete to date. Its 11 songs feel like the pieces of an excellent whole. No song is the stand-out here and no song feels unnecessary.
Dear Science (I am henceforth bailing on the comma) announces itself with the stomping and ascending “Halfway Home,” which begins in modest — with Tunde Adebimpe’s voice and a drum machine — before opening up with layered guitars and symphonic-sounding synthesizers. As the synthesizers dwindle, the Princely funk of “Crying” commences slithering while Adebimpe intones about all the things that have been making everyone world weary: religion, the environment, and the disrepair of certain portions of society (maybe New Orleans, maybe not).
In an interview with the New York Times, the band said that the title was taken from a letter guitarist Dave Sitek posted on the studio’s wall during recording; he was asking science to “fix all the things you’re talking about or shut up.” Dear Science approaches this theme at arm’s length. It covers the lack of power regular people have and gentrification (the rapping oddball “Dancing Choose”), the lack of public awareness and caring for war (the “fuck your war” declaration at the beginning of “Red Dress”), and the sense of dread that thinking about that stuff creates (the marching head-nodder “DLZ”).
But Dear Science isn’t completely concerned with pointing out what’s wrong with this interstellar collision we call Earth. It’s more about looking, and hoping and praying for things to be better (the deconstructive funk of the towering “Golden Age”) and ultimately finding some solace in companionship (the “Province”-like “Love Dog” and the looking-for-a lover theme of “Shout Me Out”). But no song finds love as the answer more than dazzling closer “Lover’s Day,” which has lines like, “Yes, dear of course there are miracles/ a lover in love that’s one,” but also ones like, “I’m gonna make you come/ I swear to God it’ll get so hot it’ll melt our faces off." The lesson here: The world may be in some desperate times, but don’t let that prevent you from getting your freak on.
It seems passé (and a bit defensive) to say, but Dear Science isn’t the kind of album that can be grasped in one sitting. On repeated listens, different layers of Sitek’s production reveal themselves: the horns on the outro to “Crying,” the soaring multitracked vocals and the way Adebimpe’s vocals go in and out of the pocket on “DLZ,” the melody on “Halfway Home,” the rain-drop melody underneath “Stork and Owl,” and the hand claps and the trumpets on “Golden Age.” All become major moments despite their minimal import on the song. Dear Science is a rare thing circa 2008: a headphone record in the age of iPods and decreased engagement with music.
TV on the Radio’s music has once, and always, come first. It’s allowed them to exist both within and outside of the Williamsburg indie-rock set (besides Liars, how many other bands around Brooklyn way are doing Berlin-era Bowie and mid-‘70s Eno?) and avoid the implications of the band’s racial make-up (there’s not that many predominantly black rock bands anymore, a notion guitarist Kyp Malone sent up with the help of Aziz Ansari from Human Giant). But when you get down to it, all of that is superfluous. This is a band that’s on top of its game: The members of TV on the Radio have done a middling debut and an excellent art-rock heavy follow-up, and now they’ve proved they can make an exhilarating album with great songs from front to back. Dear Science is another highlight from a band whose career has essentially been an extended one.