Brian Josephs still thinks “DLZ” was that “heat for the streets.”
It’s tough describing TV on the Radio without bordering hyperbole. For almost a decade, the group has been making very familiar, yet complex concepts — death, love, carnal fucking — an articulate focus through a sonic expanse. Rock is a genre of catharsis and TV on the Radio isn’t an exception. But their trick is there’s restraint found on top of that sense of finality; the inner bedlam is constant, no clear peaks or relief. You’re very aware you’re at the eye of a Category 5 when the “calm” sets on “Wolf Like Me.” “Staring at the Sun” proves Earth is flat: Tunde Adebimpe at the edge shouting at the stars, back turned to the amazed audience.
TV on the Radio was in their 30s when they made Dear Science and Return to Cookie Mountain. Their in-interview monotony juxtaposes the frenetic dissonance that lies within the soundscapes. It artfully captures the twentysomething’s perpetual fist-shaking at the cosmos, and because these rockers never lost that fire, there wasn’t any need to expect that imminent creative decline anytime soon.
They did dial back a bit on their experimental proclivities, though. Since Dear Science, TV on the Radio produced the tamer but underappreciated Nine Types of Light and released two singles — “Million Miles” and “Mercy,” a stunner that sounds like a speakeasy blues singer fighting panic in 22nd century. And that brings us to Seeds.
Gerard Smith, the bassist who passed away in 2011 after a fight with lung cancer, is a name that’s going to pop up in many reviews. It’s noteworthy not only for obvious reasons, but also because loss and renewal are Seeds’ core themes. What’s the modus operandi for articulating a now more personalized concept? Adebimpe synopsized it in Consequence of Sound’s feature: “At this point, it’s a third of our lives. What else are we going to do with it? If somebody throws us a ball, we gotta dribble it a little bit.”
But what’s a reasonable worldview in their late 30s-early 40s comes off as too clean on record. Too content. Too trite. TV on the Radio has always been formless. In fact, it’s a bit of an injustice that they’re under the indie rocker label; blues, doo-wop, jazz, funk, electronic and punk are some of the many that compose their makeup. On Seeds, it’s a head scratcher some of the genre-crossing comes across tepid. The glaring one is “Could You,” a piece of Americana in which Adebimpe has rarely sounded as indistinctive. “Test Pilot” is nicely dressed alt-rock melancholy that undoes itself with predictability — from the climaxes to the lyrics (“When we were so cool and you were the only one/ And now I know that I was such a fool thinking you’re the only one). TV on the Radio channeling Bobby McFerrin on “Trouble” is an anomaly, and not a great one.
If Seeds is a journey, it’s dry patches like the aforementioned three that prevent it from being transformative. Seeds is also TV on the Radio’s cleanest album; it’s a work that sounds like it’s been made in clear retrospection. And everybody knows the fun lies in the journey toward that clear sightedness. So instead of that thrilling turmoil that pushed their best work, you get carpe diem mantras like “Trouble”’s “Everything’s gonna OK” and “For a minute I was strung out/ Got my eyes wide open now/ I can see the storm ahead of me” in decent punk number “Winter.” The tension doesn’t really resurface until the album-closing title track. The synths gurgle and swell before halting as the album’s main mantra is recited: “Rain comes down like it always does/ This time I’ve got seeds on ground.” The sea meets the sand when as guitar squeals close the album; this realization feels earned.
TV on the Radio may be tame, but they’re not going sour. There are more hits than misses; “Careful You” prodding soul is a joy on its own, and it’s tough to resist the karaoke demands “Happy Idiot”’s reverb. “Ride” is the true highlight, though. “Father, sister, brothers/ Others born of mothers/ Every friend and lover/ Now is the time get on the ride,” Adebimpe shouts, buoyed by high-octave keys and Dave Sitek’s ethereal touch, wind passing by his scalp. It’s invigoration — a reminder that it’s challenge over comfort.