In an era where many rock visionaries are happy operating on the scale of a high school auditorium, it’s encouraging to find an indie-minded group that’s willing to step into the arena. On their major-label debut, 2006’s Return to Cookie Mountain, TV on the Radio established themselves as one of Brooklyn’s most innovative bands — a matter-of-factly interracial outfit that mixed doo-wop, soul and arty post-punk into something bracing and beautiful, though not something your drive-time radio programmer would call commercial. But to judge from their new record, these guys aspire to be more than just brainy backroom rockers.
Dear Science is a brilliant balancing act between pop aspiration and music-geek aesthetics. More tuneful than its predecessor, the album is packed with New Wave hooks and funky dance beats — albeit amid bleak lyrical visions, Afrobeat rhythmic arrangements and densely layered, terabyte-era production. Though that sound might not make for megastardom, it’s made for one damn fine record.
Dear Science reprograms old-school rock thrills for an ear-budded nation, using surprising juxtapositions to explode familiar sounds. The record opens with the majestic “Halfway Home,” all heavy, reverbed drums and serrated guitar. It’s a good approximation of the brooding sound of Joy Division, but the vocals are not depressed: “ba ba ba ba ba bum, ba ba ba ba bum,” sings frontman Tunde Adebimpe in a melody that echoes “Surfin’ Bird,” by the white Sixties garage-rock group the Trashmen, who “wrote” it by combining “Papa Oom Mow Mow” and “The Bird’s the Word,” two doo-wop hits by the black R&B group the Rivingtons.
Of course, interracial love and theft are at the heart of rock & roll. But while race may be a subtext in TV on the Radio’s music, it’s never addressed in obvious ways. That’s one reason why, in an era pundits are calling “post-racial,” they’ve always seemed among the most modern of rock bands. (It’s worth noting that Adebimpe, like Barack Obama, is an American with African parentage.)
But the main reason is the group’s sound. The mix of giddiness and bleakness on “Halfway Home” sets the tone. “The blood on the cradle/And the ashes you wade through/Got you callin’ God’s name in vain,” sings Adebimpe alongside foil Kyp Malone on “Crying,” a song about despondency in a brutal world. But they deliver the lines in uplifting soul harmonies over perky pop that suggests a lost Culture Club single. Dave Sitek’s production, unlike his usual mile-deep murk, is fairly clean; you could almost call it sunny.
“Golden Age” is an even more optimistic jam that recalls two golden ages: those of David Bowie and Prince, two innovators who also blur ideas of “black” and “white” music. Malone and Adebimpe hail an “age of miracles” in effervescent funk pop wrapped in a string quartet. “Love’s light is laughter,” sings Malone, veering in and out of lady-killer falsetto, “like the sun spittin’ happiness into the hereafter.”
Sometimes the combination of influences is straight-up bizarre, and yet the songs hold together. “Shout Me Out” punches up a reggae-rock strut with drum-and-bass rhythms and a Velvet Underground-style guitar freakout. And “Red Dress” recalls Talking Heads’ Remain in Light, adding a dash of New Orleans brass (and inevitable political echoes post-Katrina). Opening with a picket-line shout — “Hey, jackboot! Fuck your war!” — it spins into something more complicated: an interrogation of do-nothing citizens. “It’s a stone-cold shame,” Adebimpe declares, “how they got you tame, and they got me tame.”
This sort of self-consciousness keeps TV on the Radio honest, pushing them past easy sentiment and boilerplate pop. But the group is still determined to stage a revolution worth dancing to, a throwback to the days when New York artists like Patti Smith, Television and the Ramones set out to do the same. That sort of ambition is a tradition to be proud of.