Yesterday, the new TV On the Radio album Nine Types of Light finally leaked and caused me to go into epileptic spurts in which I randomly e-mailed people “RIP TV On the Radio”. In reality, the record’s stumbles shouldn’t have been entirely surprising. At the 2011 EMP Pop Conference, I caught a snippet of the record’s first single “Will Do”, whose lyrics were immediately laughable. You can only toe the line of ridiculousness and write things like “Red Dress” so many times before you end up penning opening lines like “It might be impractical to seek out a new romance / We won’t know the actual if we never take the chance.”
But even with the immediacy of “Will Do”‘s blemishes, the song still had the typical TVOtR backing: staccato hi-hats, demonic bass lines, and shuffling electronics immersed in subtle distorted guitars. These guys are best when they’re playing with unhinged sonics (off-the-rails basslines and electronic chirps bubbling under dizzying falsetto vocals), not trying to Say Something (e.g., “Red Dress”). Unfortunately, they tend toward the latter on Nine.
The group’s strength has never been their lyrics. While Tunde Abimpe’s falsetto may have been the band’s most captivating feature throughout their existence, his lyrics leave much desire. And on this record, the group streamlines their music, straying from the bass-laden, ethereal model that made them so intriguing and aiming instead of pop songs with a hint of character. “You” sounds like the cover of an OK Go song with flares of ecstatic synth notes punctuating a sing-songy chorus. The song holds up alright, but the deviation from the group’s signature sound isn’t a great look for them.
The album comes to a crashing halt on “No Future Shock”, which is just as cringe worthy as the title would suggest. The chorus is a sloppy Pearl Jam takeoff and the rest of the song’s jangly melodies crumble under the weight of a predictably terrible Message. Meanwhile, “Reputation” is damn near unlistenable and album closer “Caffeinated Consciousness” sounds like what happens when you ask Flea to produce your album. Not. Flattering.
There are a few salvageable moments, however. The aforementioned “Will Do” is a decent listen and, especially if you’re not paying attention to the lyrics, fits perfectly in the TVOtR canon. “New Cannonball Run”, awful title aside, features a rumbling bass line that wouldn’t sound out of place on Def Jux release and may be the most innovative thing the band did well on Nine. The album’s best track, however, is the ironically named “Forgotten”. Over the track’s dub-y percussion clicks and humming bass, Tunde stays mostly in check, producing a song that wouldn’t be out of place on the group’s debut EP and widely considered best release Young Liars.
Overall, Nine Types of Light is TVOtR explicitly doing pop music, something they’ve been playing with for two albums now but never quite so transparently. Unfortunately, they’re not built for pop and it’s never been quite so obvious.