Posted by: dan | March 30, 2009

focus: tv on the radio – dear science


Dan: Earlier, in our February Checkout post, I mentioned that I had added TV on the Radio’s Return to Cookie Mountain to my collection, and that generally, I was a fan of it. I even claimed ‘Wolf Like Me’ was one of my favourite tracks of the month. But what I didn’t say was how much time I spent listening to Dear Science. Having bought it in January, it was not eligible for discussion in a post about new additions in February, and so I left it. But I can’t not talk about it any longer. I was disappointed by 2008’s musical offerings, as most albums seemed to be rubbish (Supergrass’ Diamond Hoo Ha being notably bad) or average at best. There were a few exceptions, including Laura Marling’s debut, Alas, I Cannot Swim; and Neon Neon’s bizarre concept album about John DeLorean, Stainless Style. Both those albums are brilliant, and shared my choice of best album of the year. Until Dear Science got its first play.

The minimalist front cover

The CD front cover

From the first second of the first song, you can tell the album has an intense power. It starts with more energy than most other albums can muster in their highest crescendos, and it only increases from there. With ‘Halfway Home’, the album’s opening track, a sense of potential works as the undercurrent to an already raucous beat. You expect it to burst into a manic chorus at any time, but instead it keeps going and going, until right at the end it explodes into a marvellous combination of all the sounds you’ve just heard. It’s truly incredible to hear, and you’re only 5 and a half minutes in.

‘Crying’ follows in the same suit, exuding an angry air of political defiance while keeping itself restrained for the most part, before unleashing an attack of music towards the end. Before you can breathe, ‘Dancing Choose’ chants an angry “He’s a what? He’s a what? he’s a newspaper man!’, and goes on to describe the life of a Patrick Bateman character. The music calms down a little for ‘The Stork And The Owl’, but the lyrics and vocals all still emit a terrific sense of furious despair. This continues through the album, exploding through ‘Golden Age’, and then sliding across the second half of the album before attacking ex-President Bush on the penultimate track for his lack of morals and terrible decisions. The last song, ‘Lover’s Day’ is still full of anger, but shifts the focus from politics to sex, which brings a reconciliatory climax to the record in every sense.

The vocals are perfectly matched for the lyrics, with inflections and emphasis placed perfectly for every word, thought and meaning. It all synchronises perfectly with the music as well. And it’s this that really pushes the album forward from intelligent insight into psychological, musical greatness. The music on every track seems to be the aural equivalent of the subconscious thought processes surrounding the big, thematic ideas described in the lyrics. The talent and skill here is almost off the chart. It’s easy to see why David Bowie’s been championing them for so long. On some of the tracks here, it’s almost as if you’re listening to a group of Bowies. Inventive and innovative, the style of music has a grandeur and it sounds like it really shouldn’t work, but it does, and it excels because of it.

The tracklisting, as seen on the back of the CD case

The tracklisting, as seen on the back of the CD case

It’s hard to pick out any tracks as being the best, as they all sound different from the one that preceded it. The fact that it still flows and works relies on the style and enthusiasm TV On The Radio inject into every second of the album. Nevertheless, I shall put forward ‘Golden Age’ as a standout track, as it was the one that made me buy the album in the first place. It’s accessible and a good indicator of the kind of music to be found on the rest of the album. Unfortunately, I can’t find a video that works in the UK, so all I can offer is this link to their website, where you listen to a stream of it, along with ‘Dancing Choose’, their second single, and another great track.

Another awe inspiring song is ‘Family Tree’, which is a softer interlude in the middle of the album. The subject matter and vocals go hand in hand as they do with every track on Dear Science, but this one always makes my spine shiver. The problem I have here is that every time I point at a track and say “That’s amazing”, I instantly feel as if I’m being harsh on the rest of the album, because they’re all just as great.

And as if the quality of the music wasn’t enough reason to go and buy the album, they’ve designed some of the best looking sleevenotes I’ve seen in ages. On one side, all the lyrics are written out as a letter to “Dear Science,” and on the reverse, the credits are hand-written. I know that doesn’t sound very impressive, but it looks like an old letter someone found in stashed in some archives from a hundred years ago, with smudged writing, stains, fake tears and an aged-colour to it. The typewriter font helps the illusion as well. Overall, it probably isn’t as astounding as I think it is, but it’s the uniqueness and attention to detail that makes me love it so much. It’s another victory for albums as a physical musical package over the transient download versions of most albums in this lazy, digital age. I have uploaded photos of the front and the back of the inlay for you, but be warned: they’re massive images, so make sure you’ve got some decent bandwidth behind you first.

So, if you’re one of the few that hasn’t bought this album after the plethora of positive reviews and highlights on end-of-year lists that appear everywhere, I heartily recommend you go and do so. It’s only ¬£5 in HMV or on Amazon [UK links], and the album works so marvellously as a whole that any individual tracks I can give you will barely scrape the surface of Dear Science‘s ingenuity and brilliance. Nevertheless, if you’re still not convinced, here’s one final argument.

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