Our albums of the year

Stuart Mason 27 November 2008

As good as Tv On The Radio’s previous, Return To Cookie Mountain, was, it was never really ‘favourite albums’ material; perhaps it would be for someone who enjoys the feel of a murky yet poignant oppression slapping them ceaselessly in the face, but not me. I prefer oppression occasional.

And so I like opening track ‘Halfway Home’ only after hearing all of Dear Science, because the track itself lies halfway between Return To Cookie Mountain and the rest of this album,: there’s the same emphasis on indecipherable, electronic ‘noise’ (what one reviewer has called ‘skronk’, a word sadly un¬recognised by the OED), drums, and vaguely-worded lyrics that there was on Return.

I’m not fooled by the hand-claps and Tunde Adebimpe making ‘I’m-going-surfing noises’ (“ba-ba, ba ba ba”) in the background. This is just Return To Cookie Moun¬tain with hand-claps and Tunde Adebimpe making “I’m-going-surfing noises” in the background.

And then 26 seconds into the second track, ‘Crying’, in swaggers the breeziest, funkiest guitar riff ever to accompany lyrics that appear to be about the degeneration of a civilization: “The writing’s on the wall / And the blood on the cradle / And the ashes you wade through / Got you callin’ God’s name in vain”. Funky never felt so fraught.

‘Crying’ also showcases slightly lighter production from band member (and ‘skronk’ extraordinaire) David Sitek; the blanket of sounds he produces is less suffocating, and more pleasantly enveloping than it was on Return.

Dear Science also feels more unified than previous albums. Where Return seemed to have two distinct and separate halves, Dear Science is happy to mix things up, as the three tracks at the middle of the album show.

First comes lead single ‘Golden Age’, discoing along to Kyp Malone’s lyrics about “The age of miracles / The age of sound”. Malone’s (ambiguously) upbeat lyrics are backed up by several string instruments, several brass instruments, bells, and the in¬evitable skronk to create a vision of Utopia partying to excess.

This is then followed by the beautiful ‘Family Tree’, which combines echoey piano with plaintive strings without ever sounding hackneyed or like Coldplay. Perhaps because Chris Martin would never sing “And in the shadow of the gallows of your family tree / There’s a hundred hearts or three / Pumping blood to the roots of evil / To keep them young”. And if he did, it would sound ridiculous with that voice and that hair. Then comes the super-funky, aggressively dance¬able (it has congas!) ‘Red Dress’, in which Malone’s opening shout of “Hey jackboot! Fuck your war” turns into a tale of apathy in himself and others: “it’s a stone cold shame / How they got you tame, and they got me tame”.

The rest of the album is similarly diverse. Other highlights for me are ‘Shout Me Out’ (sounds, no joke, like reggae done by White Light/White Heat era Velvet Underground), and ‘Lover’s Day’, Malone’s manifesto to save the world by making his lover come loudly and often. But Dear Science is like all great albums in that people will have different favourite songs, and find different things to love in each song. Either way, no album more eloquently captures the U.S. vibe of 2008; caught between weariness, paranoia, apathy, and something nearing hope: “Yes, of course there are miracles / Under your sighs and moans / I’m gonna take you / I’m gonna take you / I’m gonna take you home”.

Stuart Mason