In 1972, as the Vietnam War dragged on and Richard Nixon’s landslide re-election loomed, David Bowie released “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.” That album’s first song, “FiveYears,” imagines the overwhelming chaos of the day that the Earth finds out it is only half a decade away from doom: “A girl my age went off her head, hit some tiny children / If the black hadn’t a-pulled her off, I think she would have killed them / A soldier with a broken arm, fixed his stare to the wheels of a Cadillac / A cop knelt and kissed the feet of a priest, and a queer threw up at the sight of that.”
Fast forward to 2008. If Bowie’s song is about the first hours after mankind gets word that the apocalypse is coming, TV on the Radio’s new album “Dear Science,” sounds like the last night before it arrives. At an after-hours goodbye party for the human race, the band alternates between elegy and celebration, while the kids on the dance-floor just want to grind like there’s no tomorrow. It’s a record about finding your soul as you’re losing your life, finding a way to “Laugh / In the face of death under masthead / Hold your breath through late breaking disasters” that seem all too real.
Over 11 songs full of pulsing digital loops and almost inhumanly precise drumming (the band abandoned drum machines for the surreal precision of Jaleel Bunton after their first LP, 2004’s unfortunately titled “Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes”), “Dear Science,” rages against war and the emptiness of modern culture (“Red Dress” and “Crying”), juxtaposes hand claps and childish la-la-la’s with images of hopelessness and confusion (“Halfway Home” and “DLZ”), and dials back the tempo for slowly unfolding abstractions of love among the ruins (“Stork and Owl” and “Family Tree”). Two of the album’s most successful cuts are its most playful: First single “Golden Age”, more pop than anything the band has done to date, insists through the surrounding gloom that “There’s a golden age / comin’ round/ … like the sun spittin’ happiness into the hereafter, and the final track “Lover’s Day” finds singer Tunde Adebimpe trying to convince a would-be partner to “ball so hard / we’ll break the walls.”
TV on the Radio has always operated in its own idiom. Adebimpe and guitarist Kyp Malone’s voices cut across Dave Sitek’s complex production, which combines African rhythms with densely melodic computerized noise patterns. “Dear Science,” sounds exactly like a TV on the Radio record without sounding exactly like the other TV on the Radio records; the driving howl of 2006’s “Wolf Like Me” (“Gonna teach you tricks that’ll blow your mongrel mind”) has been replaced by the horns, strings and background whispers of “Love Dog” (“Lonely little love dog / No one knows the name of”) but the songs are clearly of the same breed. This is not the only time the record strikes an unexpectedly soft note; the essence of the music remains the same. While the album lacks a track with the intensity of “Wolf” or “Staring at the Sun,” the new songs make up in texture what they lack in propulsion. That is not to say “Science” lacks bite, but longtime listeners might be surprised by its lack of sharp angles.
Emblazoned in the liner notes is an official-looking seal ringed with the words “Quianam Omnes Moriuntur,” which translate to: “Why is everybody dying?” It is a question “Dear Science,” does not attempt to answer, nor does it need to. By making music this original and vibrant, Adebimpe and company suggest that neither the band nor humanity is on its way out quite yet.