Amongst a lot of fans of TV on the Radio, you find a debate over which as the better album: their first, Desperate Youths, Bloodthirsty Babes, or its impeccable follow-up, Return to Cookie Mountain. Battle lines are drawn over a band with albums like those, like people asked to choose between OK Computer and Kid A. It’s a debate that has never really subsided in my eyes, and that’s okay: I never connected with the former, but still find new things to love in Return To Cookie Mountain. It was an album that I listened to in the mad dash to listen to records at the end of ’06, the one that gave me Hot Chip’s The Warning and Tim Hecker’s Harmony in Ultraviolet, among others. It was a breath of strange tasting air, and it felt right, somehow. Hearing a band do such simple things in such a fascinating way peaked my interest from the get go, and I was hooked. The record’s follow-up, Dear Science, however, didn’t captivate me in quite the same way, though it was still good. It wasn’t a surprise to me: some bands just can’t re-capture that magic again and again, like a handful can.
So, here we are, album four (five, if you count Young Liars), and the band is clearly re-capturing that spark, if only in small doses. The album was released just a few days before the death of the band’s bassist, Gerard Smith, who had just been diagnosed with lung cancer a month prior. Smith’s death somehow retroactively affected the tone of the record: it’s a somber record for most of its’ length, far removed from the acid-tinged Jazz-informed freakouts of the last two records (See: “Dancing Choose” or “Wolf Like Me”). It’s not the kind of record that tries terribly hard to break the sound that TV on the Radio have established over the last decade, but it does, somehow, just sound a little different. The album’s first single, “Will Do,” is a somber affair, made incredibly touching by a simple question delivered by Tunde Adebimpe: “What choice in words will bring me back to you?” “Will Do” is the best example of what kind of record Nine Types of Light was born to be: it’s that record that makes you think “they’ve mature, haven’t they?” but not hard enough to truly believe it. That line is easily one of the best lines on the record, not because of its depth. It’s because it embodies the gorgeous simplicity that Nine Types of Light strives for, in the face of unspoken expectations for a highly-advanced album.
If nothing else, the sound of Nine Types of Light isn’t so much different as it is a distillation of what makes TV on the Radio an interesting band. The band has always had a knack for blending styles seamlessly to the point where the notion of pointing out styles is meaningless. This is what has made every one of their albums feel like a minor event, rather than just a record. It may sound grandiose, but it’s the best thing about bands like this one, who home-grow their own sound out of the best of everything else, rather than just following a blueprint. It’s a sound that informs the infectious, stuck-in-your-head-for-days bounce of “Repetition,” and the love-lorn “Keep Your Heart,” two songs that shouldn’t be on the same record, but somehow feel so perfect in the same place, regardless.
The one problem with Nine Types of Light is that it feels too short, and ends too suddenly. Though it clocks in at 45 minutes long, the record feels like its missing a song there at the end. It’s one of the few albums around that feels about 20 minutes shorter than it actually is, and sometimes, this is a good thing. Here, though, it feels like something has been left out accidentally, as though they simply ran out of time, or something got lost in the mastering. Even still, this is a minor trifle, and it’s unfair to say about any of their albums; they’ve always been fantastic when it comes to sequencing their albums for flow, even if the content might not always be the absolute best.
“To arrive ahead of his time / is the fate of a fish washed up on shore.” This is the first line of “Repetition,” and it’s truly the best line on the record. It’s also, along with the aforementioned line from “Will Do,” a line that sums up the album, and indeed the band itself, completely. Nine Types of Light is not a record meant to convert anyone, but more one to distill and firm up what has always made them a great band. They’ve always been groundbreaking, and though they haven’t quite broken into public consciousness like some of their peers, this record shows that they have the ability to take the world by storm, once the world at large is ready and able to handle it.