As the opening bars of “Quartz,” the first track on TV on the Radio‘s fifth studio album Seeds, unfold, it’s difficult to separate the spacious, ominous rhythm of handclaps from the band’s long, heartbreaking history. “I should really give it up sometime,” is Tunde Adebimpe‘s romantic mantra, and one wonders how many times he may have thought the same thing about his band.
The Brooklyn group has not had it easy. After their first three albums made them the reigning kings of Williamsburg art rock, 2011′s Nine Types of Light was a misstep not at all representative of the band’s potential to advance their sound. It was also immediately wrapped in tragedy when bassist Gerard Smith passed away from lung cancer within days of its release. Three years later, Seeds feels like a chance for the band to gain back some of the trust critics may have lost (in their review for Nine Types of Light, Pitchfork called the band’s recent moves those of “textbook careerists”). But indie rock is a very different place than it was in 2008, when Dear Science was released, and certainly than it was in 2006, when “I Was a Lover” boomed through the bars of North Brooklyn. What sounded, to early-’00s ears, like a revelation — dance music engaging with the dark, confusing realities of urban life — is no longer so avant-garde. Writing big, cavernous songs is de rigeur and TVOTR’s crystal-clear sound has more in common with an artist like Florence Welch — making big pop songs perfect for playing at festivals — than with artists who are pushing the boundaries of the artist-producer relationship. At this point, TVOTR’s big rock sound is the status quo. This is not to say that there aren’t moments of beauty on Seeds; it’s just missing the frenetic darkness that made their sound so undeniable nearly a decade ago.
The album’s first single, “Happy Idiot,” was a glimmer that something stronger than Light was to come and remains a highlight on Seeds. Its shiny production still manages to capture the anxiety of so many of the band’s late-catalog love songs by countering lyrics about romance with just-left-of-center instrumental touches, like the chaotic horn arrangements of “Could You.” The tangle of brass combined with the driving guitars and insistent synths nearly makes the listener lose the melody completely in a wall of sound. It’s dance-punk without much punk left, which was coming. In Spin, Sean Fennessey referred to Nine Types of Light as “lovers rock,” calling it the “liquefying of a band, 10 years and four albums deep, into the soft tenderness of pre-middle-age satisfaction.” Seeds, then, is the total realization of that liquification — less anxious, still a tiny bit weird, but overall well manicured and reflective. These sound like love songs by someone who knows how to write a love song, not necessarily by someone who is wrenchingly in or out of love. On “Happy Idiot,” Adebimpe sings, “Since you left me babe/ it’s been a long way down,” and the contrast between the song’s heartbreak themes and its bopping, poppy rhythm creates a sinister cognitive dissonance that hints at some of the bands former sonic nuance. Nonetheless, it sounds so manufactured that it could be in an iPhone commercial.
It’s also possible that Seeds is just the album you get when you move a Brooklyn band to sunny Los Angeles, where TVOTR producer Dave Sitek has permanently relocated. Adebimpe traveled to Sitek’s Silverlake studio to record the album, as he did for Nine Types of Light, and not to be all “Goodbye to All That” or anything, but you can hear it. A notable change is the clear electronic influence in the percussion, most remarkably on in the glitchy drums of “Test Pilot.” There’s even a flirtation with surf rock on the track “Could You” and in the crunchy guitars that open the title track. There is sunshine in these songs where many listeners have come to expect darkness. On “Love Stained,” Adebimpe’s tenor starts as a whisper and rises to a pleading growl before opening up into an arena rock-worthy chorus, all crashing cymbals and synth strings. It’s one of the clearest moments of real vulnerability on the album, as his vibrato makes a rare, wavering appearance, but it’s too clean.
If Sitek and Adebimpe set out to make an arena record, they have succeeded. The poppy bounce of “Ride” sounds like nothing more than head-bopping filler, and is ultimately forgettable. The tinkling glockenspiel that opens “Right Now” gives way to a canned beat that wouldn’t sound out of place in an electropop song but adds very little to an album that is, for all intents and purposes, about heartbreak — it sounds like an attempt at a hit, but there’s no sign of the unbridled, boundary-pushing passion of a song like “Wolf Like Me.” For a band that has changed, learned and lost so much, Seeds is a rebirth. If it’s a transitional album, an experiment, maybe all is not lost, but there has to be more than this. The sense of longing is there, but the sound is not — these are songs made to be played in a car on the freeway, where motion and distance eclipse substance. But all bands change, and perhaps Seeds is a necessary growing pain before the darkness and the light can find balance.