Review Summary: TV on the Radio on Autopilot
Through four studio albums, TV on the Radio has found itself on the forefront of indie rock. TVOTR has merited its high praise, as the band has consistently delivered a style that is equally addicting and challenging to the listener. By their second studio album, the excellent Return to Cookie Mountain, the band was deftly juggling an array of sounds, from soulful to angsty, while maintaining a cohesive and dynamic listening experience. TV on the Radio’s breakout, 2008’s Dear Science, best embodied the band’s creative inertia. The album showcased funky and forward thinking arrangements that blended seamlessly with lead singer Tunde Adebimpe’s varied delivery, making transitions between tracks like “Crying” to “Dancing Choose” both jolting and immensely enjoyable. However, 2011’s Nine Types of Light seemed a slight regression from Dear Science, as the band replaced some of its fervent need for experimentation with a more laid back and warm sentimentalism. Ultimately, the band seemed content to create an album that was good but not great.
Three years after Nine Types of Light and the tragic death of long-time bassist and keyboardist Gerard Smith, TV on the Radio return with Seeds. While Seeds is TVOTR’s most poppy and accessible record to date, it also unfortunately sees the band taking another step back in creativity. Seeds is plagued by many of the same issues present on Nine Types of Light. Mainly, while the songs are pleasant enough, there seems to be some element missing -- some integral part of the formula that made the band’s earlier work so intriguing.
There are nevertheless many positives on the record. For starters, the production is slick and refined, weightlessly bouncing the album from one track to the next. The singles “Happy Idiot” and “Careful You” are undeniably catchy, pairing swirling synths and basslines with Tunde’s effortlessly smooth vocals. More energetic tracks like “Could You” and “Lazerray” are buoyant head bobbers from beginning to end. The former offers perhaps the most likeable TVOTR riff to date. On the track, Tunde begs,” Could you love somebody? Could you hold another’s care above your bright lights?” on top of a building brass section that whisks the song off with an infectious finale. The track could no doubt become a fan favorite, especially in the live setting where its energy can particularly take hold. The final tracks, "Trouble" and "Seeds" add a more reflective side of the album, showcasing the band’s tight composition and melodic prowess. The latter finishes with a beautiful outro that concludes the record on a hopeful note.
However, while there are plenty of enjoyable moments, there are an equal number that feel slightly dull. "Test Pilot" is a heavy and meandering ballad, made listenable only by Tunde’s delivery. “Love Stained” is a similarly ethereal slow burner that fails to hold attention over its runtime. “Ride” transitions from a dark and stormy intro to a loud bubbliness that makes the track feel like a strange Guster b-side. After the strong “Right Now,” “Winter” kicks off promisingly with a fuzzy guitar riff and Tunde’s mercurial shouting. However, even as it progressively adds layers of percussion, the track seems to go nowhere. Very one-note, “Winter” ultimately feels like an elongated intro for “Lazerray.” None of these aforementioned tracks are necessarily bad; they just seem to start and end without leaving much of a mark.
Lyrically, Tunde addresses many of the same themes from Nine Types of Light, tackling topics such as love and uncertainty. However, much like some of the music behind it, the album’s lyrics often seem disinterested. On “Careful You,” Tunde beckons, “Don’t know how I feel. What’s the deal? When’s it gonna go down?” Tunde has a lot of questions, but he doesn’t seem particularly intent on digging below the surface to find the answers.
No doubt the album starts and finishes strong. Unfortunately, the 2nd third includes tracks that are surprisingly tepid at times (especially considering the much stronger “Million Miles” and “Mercy” that were released over the past year). Even Tunde, whose vocals shine throughout, often cannot free the middle of the record from a dragging predictability. The loss of Gerard Smith was obviously a large blow to TVOTR’s dynamic rhythm section. While the band attempts to replace the tight, funky undercurrents with a more accessible and expansive sound, it seems that, for the first time in their career, Tunde and company do not have enough novel ideas to fill the void. Ultimately, Seeds sounds very much like a band that is content on autopilot. On “Trouble,” Tunde reassures, “Everything is gonna be okay!” And he’s right -- everything on the record is okay. However, when it comes to TV on the Radio, we’ve come to expect a lot more.
Recommended Tracks: Could You, Happy Idiot, Lazerray, Trouble, Seeds