TV On The Radio As Soundtrack To Bush & Obama’s America

Don't Let The Devil In: John Calvert takes a look at the work of TV On The Radio through the prism of a turbulent decade in American politics

Listen back on TV On The Radio’s decade-long odyssey through America and you can track the Liberal-Bohemian experience in the Bush years; what it was to feel endangered and outnumbered, to be buffeted about in a country playing merry hell with reason; to feel like you’re losing. "Well we chose this course / but the weather changed" Kyp Malone wrote on ‘Playhouses’, "…and the river froze / and when it thawed it was running backwards and dry now / I suppose it’s appropriate to cry now".

The New Yorker’s searing triptych of Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes, Return To Cookie Mountain and Dear Science teems with references to going to ground in an occupied state, in a plight to preserve a way of life. "Stole underground to kick your heart around / banished from above / vanished from above" sings Tunde Adebimpe on ‘Hours’; while on ‘Tonight’ he manages a final warning to his co-conspirators before his tell-tale heart betrays him to a kind of secret police: "A light on good friends and fortune, draw all your blinds / conceal it all from sight". The message was this: watch over over the light through this darkest of nights – "Candle of life, let it soothe this / oh hold its hands / and we’ll know what truth is / in its arms, safe from the storms" (‘Stork And Owl’ from Dear Science). It was a kind of exodus, the titular ‘Return to Cookie Mountain’ being a pilgrimage to a kind of mythic bohemian Zion.

In the end it’s Malone who best crystallised the anxieties of the outsider, at a time when common-sense was shrivelling beneath the shadow of the 9/11 shock doctrine: "I can see clearly / round hole, round whole / square peg don’t fit" he groans, his voice drowning beneath David Sitek’s terrorizing fuzz-cloud. A beautifully metaphorical take on anguished musical politicking, their trilogy is shot through with Revelational content and doused in paranoia, mistrust and the most lurid shade of fear: that of American Christianity, of the right wing, of cultural persecution and of mass hysteria.

There were the dread-sexy soul vocals, cascading over the ancient ooze of subterranean jazz; the Atomic-age doo-wop propping up drum loops that conjured some Bayou voodoo party; the Prince-ian machine-funk in the foreboding vein of ‘1999’ rattling past blind seers whistling road-side in the desert, and there werethe vast rivers of shoegaze drone that held the whole thing together. The fusion seemed to use any resonantly disquieting sound going to venipuncture the feel-bad vibe. Taking from Eric Serra’s transformation of New York on the Leon soundtrack, Sitek’s vivid, fantastical production, brought a fully-formed musical universe into existence, complete with its own rules, parameters and miracles.

"I was a lover / before this war" went the soliloquy opening 2006’s Return To Cookie Mountain, with Malone’s words carried a few miles inland by the trumpets at the gates of Jericho: Sitek’s hiccuping ‘jumbotronic’ recoil – in musical terms was a foretelling of doom second only to the classic mariachi trumpet. From Jeremiah 4:19-2: "O my soul, my soul! My heart makes a noise in me; I cannot hold my peace. The sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war". By the time it came to write their second album the New Yorkers could no longer hold their peace, or contain the noise inside of them. Although latter-day hippies to their core, their communique was caked in maleficence – "the truth, cradled in a cry" This was ideological warfare – the battle for the souls of those blood-thirsty babes, the "future youth" whom Adebimpe summons "to the sky" on ‘Hours’ – "Refuse these cruel, unusual fools / leave them to rule in hollow-point hell" he commands. It was a record that obliged you to side with the : "Stand, stare, fast beside me and see that love is the province of the brave" declares Malone on ‘Province’. It’s hard to understand why their detractors criticised it as being elusive, inscrutable and detached.

Meanwhile there are Adebimpe’s proclamations on ‘Wolf Like Me’, wherein sex is a political act – one for the home team. He consumes the enemy female – "Baby doll I recognize you’re a hideous thing inside / if ever there were a lucky kind it’s you / gonna teach you tricks that’ll blow your mongrel mind". The coda of "We’re howling forever" is one mighty war-cry, shouting from the rafters that ‘our kind’ will always be around: fighting, playing, loving, never outdone. By the end he’s infected her with "his curse" – the counterculture gene ("the bite that binds / the gift that gives") His gift to her is passion and she is transformed; a defector.

‘A Method’ is an ode to the artistic process; a love-letter to the ability to create. The mood is beatific and like Yeasayer’s ‘2080’ the following year, the touchstone is Terrence Malick’s pre-industrial utopia of Days Of Heaven. Over drummer Jaleel Bunton’s mischievous percussion, Adebimpe lauds this bohemian dream from across the divide: "There is hardly a method you know….. / I’m a storm-faced cloud"; you’re scared of us, he is saying, of what you don’t understand – "I’m a cold, base clown / laughing at enemies" he provokes over Bunton’s burst of martial drums. Their righteous address to the General would have to wait until Dear Science: "Never you mind Death Professor / your structure’s fine / my dust is better (‘DLZ’, Dear Science). It is tempting to imagine the riposte as the Romantics’ manifesto transplanted to modern-day Brooklyn, a doctrine which further on in ‘DLZ’ is distilled to one simple proposition: "Love is life, My love is better" spits Malone with middle-finger aloft. Since Thom Yorke’s "Bring down the government / They don’t speak for us", in guitar music there hadn’t been as rousing an affront to the establishment or statement of solidarity as Malone’s line on ‘A Method’.

And for once no one was tittering into their sleeves – irony has no place in the music of TvoTR. Likewise, neither does self-importance. Released six months prior to Neon Bible, their second offering was everything Arcade Fire’s grandiose affair wasn’t – apostolical, zeitgeist-snagging but timeless, monumental and musically astonishing. And while Funeral is often cited as indie’s last unifying statement before the era of balkanisation / super-hybridity / brain-mulching acceleration (the codification of which can arguably be traced back to Sitek cohorts Gang Gang Dance) it’s TVoTR’s 2006 event album that holds the silverware.

Simultaneously guttural and celestial, RtCM‘s penultimate ‘Tonight’ is bracketed by Sitek’s excoriating depth-charge synths on the one side, and those dream-catcher chimes on the other. Arguably their masterpiece, it scrapes the hull of heaven while dangling bruised ankles into hell, traversing a wind-scarred El Dorado transposed over a gargoyled New York. As blogger/academic Rouge’s Foam claims: "one of the central tenets of Romantic(ist) aesthetics, is projecting heavens or hells onto ‘reality’ for emotionally resonant or fantastical effect.

Like some of the very greatest pop music in history, it pulses with the authors’ sense of their own mortality. Through the metaphor of drug addiction, Adebimpe laments his diminished soul – eroded to translucence by the times he’s living in: "My mind is like an orchard, clustered in frozen portraits". As he sails ever closer to non-existence, inching up Jacob’s ladder, the demons reveal themselves through his near-death hallucination: "Blossoms that bloom so fine, just to drop fromthe vine / I’ve seen them all…tonight". Poised at midnight in the garden of good and evil, it ends on a cliffhanger with Adebimpe at a crossroads between survival and surrender – the night is darkest before the dawn. Then on Dear Science, with not a minute to spare, the bough breaks.

Released a matter of months before America inaugurated its first black president, their third album exploded into life with renewed determination. Even if, as Tunde told The Quietus, their expectations for the new order were paltry, there’s a sense of the day that follows the night ("There’s a golden age coming round" sang Malone on the lead single). Feeding off John Milius’ vision of Vietnam as a surrealist surf luau-out – the invaders ‘tear-assing’ around sacred territory like a winged Californian nightmare – the opener dive-bombs through an armada of chants and treated handclaps in a grotesque parody of American military might. A stupendous opening salvo, the rampaging air cavalry swoop in on pop’s version of Wagnerian God-wind, Adebimpe testifying over their murderous dawn-raid. Apocalypse Now depicted the end of the American Empire, the four-star clowns having "given up the whole circus" and it’s not much of a stretch to read Sitek’s references to the film on ‘Halfway Home’ as a way of drawing a parallel to the collapse of Republican reign. While our heroes danced and looted and fucked their way to metaphysical armistice on September’s Dear Science, Dubya sat out his ignominious, dead-duck epilogue with an inane grin across his face, equally as bewildered about the events of the previous eight years as the rest of us.

The ensuing set plays out like a victory march on the enemy capital, carried in on an unstoppable wave of change and with Bush’s head on a stake for all to see: "Days of white robes have come and gone / come and gone / oh you rivers, oh you waters run / come bear witness to the whore of Babylon". In agitated, aroused commotion the Brooklynites spend the main body of the album taking funky, victory-lap potshots at the administration. On ‘Red Dress’ (a play on’redress’ – as in to ‘set right or remedy’) Adebimpe growls triumphantly "Jackboot / Fuck Your War!!" like it’s something he’s been bursting to say for a very long time, while on ‘DLZ’ there’s the sneering "Congratulations on the mess you made of things".

As the record nears its end, the pageantry subsides and the victors count their casualties, their pre-war humanity reawakening amid the bombed-out ruins. Theproduction becomes less dense, unravelling from airless tension to dappled lacuna. There are numerous allusions to death, changing seasons, re-purifying atmosphere and rebirth, with the precipitate of resolution and restoration collecting in weary eyes. It closes with TVoTR’s version of V.E. Day – ‘Lover’s Day’, which draws to a close like so: "Yes, here of course there are miracles, under your sighs and moans / I’m gonna take you / I’m gonna take you /…home". And that’s it. Peacetime.

Nine Types Of Light speaks of reconciliation but finishes on a note of restive defiance, with ‘Caffeinated Consciousness’ burying a seed of doubt in the fabric, a tiny fissure creeping up the ark they taxi around in these days. There seems to be an unprecedented state of polarity emerging in both America and Britain presently, and while you could say other areas of music – like electronica – are involved in forming the zeitgeist, it’s bands like TV On The Radio who are able to voice it. Next year as America decides whether or not to validate Obama’s tenure, you can bet the Brooklynites will absorb that tension and make art from it.

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