When TV on the Radio released Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes in 2004, I was one of the first in line to herald it as a modern-day classic. I talked about it endlessly, attempted to convince skeptical friends, wrote a fawning review for my school newspaper, and realized that nothing would epitomize "Number One Album of the Year" for me better than that particular release. But the wonderful thing about truly interesting and artistic musicians or groups -- Radiohead, David Bowie, the Beatles -- is their ability to allow their sound to evolve. Done properly, this is what keeps a band refreshing and vital. And it's precisely what the members of TV on the Radio have done with their sophomore full-length. In hindsight, Return to Cookie Mountain makes Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes look almost silly by comparison.
The band itself has expanded from a wholly competent trio to a full-fledged quintet prone to bouts of musical chairs, onstage and in the studio. Desperate Youth thrived on loops and beats, and although Cookie Mountain shows remnants of that dynamic, it rests strongly on live drums (perhaps best displayed as the members cut through a vicious wall of guitar sound on "Playhouses") and increased instrumentation overall. On "Province," a miniature choir sings, "Just like autumn leaves/ we're in for change," a line that contains almost profound meaning; it could allude to any number of things (first major-label record, first full-band outing, David Bowie singing backup on this particular track, the list goes on). But more than likely it has to do with something far greater than a mere rock 'n' roll record.
Of course, no discussion of this band of Brooklynites is complete without mentioning golden-throated frontman Tunde Adebimpe. Almost no one rivals this man's pipes today, and in a live setting, he stands proud, waving his free hand like a preacher moved by the spirit, converting all who gaze upon it. Backed by the husky voice of Celebration's Katrina Ford on the first single, "Wolf Like Me" (the video for which was just shot last week in Williamsburg), Adebimpe spits lines in such a way that listeners can't help but feel completely invincible. Moving and utterly sincere, in the chorus it sounds like Adebimpe is saying, "My hearts aflame/ my body's strained/ but, God, I like it." This is what listening to "Wolf Like Me" is like. It's the obvious single from the record, the "Staring at the Sun" of Cookie Mountain, if you will, and proof that this very well could be the breakout record for the band.
But is that even fair to talk about at this point? That an album that whooped up a vicious buzz through a misordered and incorrectly labeled leak early this spring could find an audience on a larger label and truly become huge? Stranger things have happened, I suppose, but it's hard to believe that the glitchy, horn-sampling beats of "I Was a Lover" or the drum-heavy loveliness of "A Method" could become household in nature. And yet, for every moment of overt density, there is time for exaltation via a shout-along chorus ("Let the Devil In"), Adebimpe's alliterative poetry ("Dirty Whirl"), or a straight-ahead rocker ("Blues From Down Here"). Only the masses can decide whether or not this is the record for TV on the Radio, one that propels the band to the kind of indie-to-mainstream success found by Modest Mouse and others before it.
Of course, this is all a moot point. It's doubtful any of the members of TV on the Radio are counting on a major cash-in from Return to Cookie Mountain. These are guys content to make hilarious YouTube promos involving David Cross and children playing the part of The Man. Indeed, this is a band -- despite its oftentimes dire subject matter -- enjoying a career that amounts to making interesting music and playing it for people who love it. A band focused on its art, the result of which this time around is simply triumphant.
Streaming audio: http://www.myspace.com/tvotr