TV On The Radio’s Nine Types of Light, released this year, was not ambitious.
This was odd. What have we come to expect from TV On The Radio if not ambition? Each record before this one seemed to give us another reason to call them ‘art-rock’, be it for their crazy musical ventures (to think they had the nerve to sample Metal Machine Music) or for their lyrically cryptic nature. Nine Types of Light, then, saw a band happy to slow down and ready to lose whatever “edge” was elevating them above the rest. You have to be pretty confident to do that, or at least very content indeed, and to me Nine Types of Light celebrates losing its higher calling as “art.” There’s no denying, however, that it doesn’t try to carry a statement as dark as “DLZ” or to look at an issue in the way “I Was A Lover” did.
So it feels brilliant to have the Nine Types of Light film as an accompanying piece, no matter how satisfied I am with the hour of music. To me, it feels intriguing to see a band re-imagine their music so immediately. There are other forums to offer a second interpretation on your music, but most of them feel a little more distant than this; the Flaming Lips, for instance, dedicated a musical to Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, a record already surreal as hell, but it was released after the fact. Others would prefer to just play their albums in their entirety live, but I don’t think the Pinkerton tour would ever really be as insanely fresh and satisfying as what the Nine Types of Light video is. It feels especially satisfying to have the music videos extended into a film for this particular record, one with which the qualms were its small scale, unadventurous nature. You can call it a gimmick if you like, but the film for Nine Types of Light is just the “re-imagination” of its record the band claims it to be, and so the ideas bubble, the themes extend themselves and everything gets a whole lot bigger, wackier, and even more serious.
It might not hit you like that straight away. The first video on the shuffled video playlist for Nine Types Of Light, “Caffeinated Consciousness,” is silly, excessive and brilliant, but it’s more throwing colours at the wall than envisioning the bananas socio-political statements so often connected to TV On The Radio’s work. It plays the closest to the song it goes with than any other, with its dancing troupes and rock band collages filling a summer-day background. That kind of feels like what “Caffeinated Consciousness” was on the record- the song felt like Rage Against the Machine for a hot day- and the band here do little more than fuck about. Regardless, it’s still a slice of TVoTR art: it’s cryptic at times, the band even scrolling through a different languages on the subtitles, and it’s definitely as weirdly expressive as any lyric contained in Dear Science.
What grabs me about the videos that follow this one, just as expressive with just as few words, is their willingness to take apart the simplicity of the record and re-examine the songs. Rather than simply having the visuals accompany the song, the music moves to the film. TV On the Radio called it a “visual re-imagination,” and they’re quite right. I rambled on unhealthily and geekishly about the qualities of the “You” music video, and I’m quite happy to do so again. The song itself is insanely simple and comes across as nothing more than a plain love song, detailing a time-told breakup story: ‘You gave no reason for letting go / I just thought you might like to know / you’re the only one I ever loved’. Visualised, “You” feels like someone is pitching a TV dramedy along the lines of The Office. At first it’s hilarious, with the group acting out a year-on diner dinner in which Kyp is into live-action roleplaying and Dave Sitek is commissioning Bush Administration: On Ice! in his free time. But this is all simply the groundwork for a tragic storyline on Tunde Adebimpe’s part, in which we see him trying to get by after the band’s breakup by putting on a Prince costume and trying to score shows. Personally, I found this pretty hard to let go of: the TV On The Radio breakup here hurts Tunde as hard as it could any fan, and the pathetic character painted here, with nothing more than a crumpled magazine and a shitty hotel room, seems so much more deeply explored than the simple lovesick music of “You” itself. Adebimpe himself is a fairly accomplished actor (known for Rachel Getting Married), and according to a Pitchfork interview actually cried on the spot for the scene. That, to me, shows the dedication the band show to Nine Types of Light in its second form. “You,” a personal favourite, is slickly directed, and performed both hilariously and mortifyingly.
I like too, that this project can cover so many different ideas but still feel connected to its music. The film ranges in ideas from the entity that is TV on The Radio in both “You” and “Killer Crane,” to the scary political cartoon on “Repetition,” to the tense and terrible horror flick in “Forgotten.” But something like “Killer Crane” still feels at one with the sun-bathed jam it is on record, celebrating with a slideshow of the band’s holiday snaps. For a record that felt like the band just celebrating who they were, allowing each member to do their own thing and proving Kyp and Tunde both proven songwriters, it feels nice to have a video fully dedicated to the company of these people. It always fits, be it a complete spin of the wheel as “You” was or something that notes the music’s strengths. On “Keep Your Heart” the band is again particularly good at recognising the themes they introduced on record. The song is probably the prime reason Nine Types of Light can be identified as an album of “slow love songs for [TVOTR’s] girlfriends.” It’s slow and gorgeous, and the video tries to find beauty amidst something sinister, with its central character rebuilding her lover’s body and reuniting with him as the sun sets. “Keep Your Heart” indeed, and a nice, touching video for its literal translation.
Elsewhere, things get really surreal and a whole lot less grounded. “No Future Shock” teaches us its dance until the crowd lies fainting on the floor. The pure animations of “Second Song” and “New Cannonball Blues” introduce colourful shapes and sketches with little storyboarding, and as a result the videos feel like they’ve been built up from scratch. It’s something daring for a song as sexy and big sounding as “Second Song” to simply become 3D rendered landscapes. It feels as inaccessible and cryptic as any TV On The Radio song I found hard to grasp for its lyrics.
And yet TV On The Radio feel so dead set on having a uniting theme to the cryptic Nine Types of Light film, to give insight where the record of music was too simple to analyse and yet too varied to outright categorise as “sad songs” or “happy songs.” There may even be no real weight in the record’s title itself, with Adebimpe himself saying the title did not refer specifically to types of light, but rather that it simply popped into his head. And yet the little interviews that seem to be going on around the edges of each music video, no matter how abstract and vague, try to detail something big. The people TV On The Radio decorate the videos with go about describing dreams and journeys into the surreal, and while it feels hard to follow as a thematic string of events, it gives a sense of grandeur to the videos; something as silly and giggly as “Caffeinated Consciousness” never really needed that huge setup, maybe, but what else are these people for? Maybe, if nothing else, they’re just there to help re-imagine a record that no one could quite delve into as they would have wanted to. And it’s so brilliant that the Nine Types of Light film is willing to immediately look at itself in a different way. It’s rare to find in a world where musicians put their music out as one thing and one thing only, but here TV On The Radio have created something wildly different, engrossing to watch through, funny and tragic, art with shades of stupid. It’s a huge collage of ideas that makes me feel like TV On The Radio are once again ‘art-rock’, or what-have-you. “I can’t shake the feeling something exciting is coming,” one interviewee says. And then the videos start.