Even amongst the band’s biggest apologists, TV on the Radio’s third album, Dear Science, has been — sometimes retroactively — labeled a “disappointment,” largely because the broken art-rock of Return to Cookie Mountain was replaced with a mixture of Station to Station-era David Bowie and the more experimental spectrum of Prince’s horndog R&B. This is pertinent information, because you’re about to hear all about how band’s fourth album, Nine Types of Light, is a “disappointment” too, because it further distances the band from their first two LPs by doubling down on Dear Science’s art-rock&B — minus the dark edge — and staunchly refusing to deliver anything like that true-to-form TV on the Radio single (“Staring at the Sun,” ‘Wolf Like Me” or “Dancing Choose”). Nine Types of Light is a lot of things — arty adult contemporary, the album equivalent of a velvet pillow — but it’s not a disappointment. This is still TV on the Radio, and their worst is still better than most bands’ best. But this much is certain: TV on the Radio have changed.
The success of Nine Types of Light — and your fondness for it — even more so than with Dear Science, is hinged entirely on your acceptance of TV on the Radio as the mellowest dudes in indie rock, when your past exposure to them is filtered through walls of feedback and the gutted remains of rock. Are you prepared for a song cycle seemingly entirely about finding love connections in the modern world? Are you prepared to have TV on the Radio cuddle you in the blanket that is Nine Types of Light instead of shaking you awake? You better be. There are major hiccups in this transition, to be sure: Opener “Second Song,” the grinding “Killer Crane,” “You” and the bass-heavy “No Future Shock” present the new template for TV on the Radio with only intermittent success.
But when they get it right, they draw the continuum of soft tracks between Nine Types of Light, Dear Science, “Province” and “Tonight” from Return, and “Ambulance” from Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes. This is a band, after all, that has always been interested in this kind of balladry. People just tend to forget it when they’re getting rocked by the middle section of Return to Cookie Mountain. Highlights here, like the show stopping “Will Do,” the whistling “Forgotten” and the tender “Keep Your Heart,” make up for the album’s brief forays into Wilco-esque, comfortable distillations of the new TV on the Radio form. Actually, Wilco’s recent albums are a good analog for Nine Types of Light: You can’t always break boundaries, but there can be successes in getting comfortable.
The string of melodramatic tracks will probably overshadow the two greatest peaks on Nine Types of Light, though: the ‘90s indie wall-puncher that is “Caffeinated Consciousness” and the Parliament-like free association dream of “New Cannonball Run.” But that’s understandable, in that they are both different from the bulk of the album, rising above the hazy smoke of the rest of the songs.
No, the thing that will chew up most of the thought about Nine Types of Light is that we’re dealing with the reality that TV on the Radio have released a good album, but not a very great one. This is still an album full of tracks that deserve unpacking for their hidden fruit — that horn breakdown at the end of “New Cannonball Run,” the way the guitars sound like a car crash in the background of “Will Do,” the whistling outro of “Forgotten,” the string arrangements on “Killer Crane” — but there’s no denying that Nine Types just doesn’t hit the same unmatchable quality level of the band’s past work. Maybe it’s time to alter our expectations for new TV on the Radio albums: We might not be blown away, but TV on the Radio’s sonic environment is still one of the most interesting venues in music.