When it was released last summer, TV on the Radio’s Young Liars was an accomplished statement in its own right, certainly, but it also hinted at greater things to come. While the EP contained only five songs, they were all informed by the same vision: a liberal mix of post-punk, electronic, rhythm and blues, doo-wop, soul, and ambient, assembled in rich, textured songs and animated by Tunde Adebimpe’s elliptical lyrics. Some bands would turn this formula into an album-long series of mix-and-match, making the listener play a simple game of spot-the-genre. The members of TV on the Radio seemed to be too respectful of their influences, however, and too sure of their own abilities to just write genre pieces. Instead, they assembled collages of nearly fifty years worth of pop music, precisely layering electronic textures upon pulsating drum beats, mixing in feedback-laden guitars, and then Adembimpe’s laidback tenor. Naturally, however, the music was more than just the sum of these elements; and despite all the talk about their having developed a brand new kind of rock music, perhaps even having moved past rock music, Young Liars avoided the seemingly intractable problem that such praise always evokes – it was, most definitely, a lot of fun to listen to.
Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes contains a single holdover from Young Liars – “Staring at the Sun” – but it fits right in with the new material, which is another way of saying that the album continues on the same course the EP blazed. But with the addition of Kyp Malone, who contributes vocals, guitar, and loops to the album, and the expanded canvas of a full-length, the music falls across a broader spectrum. Where Young Liars sounded like a band getting started – it was never clear what they might throw in next – there was only so much that could be revealed over the course of five tracks. With more time as a band, and more songs at their disposal, Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes gives us a more precise sense of how TV on the Radio has reworked rock music – and it gives us this sense by showing us just how many different things the band is capable of doing.
The sound is remarkably consistent; the songs all have a grainy, buzzing texture, like music pumped through an archaic, low-fidelity speaker (and while this may be overreaching, I take the band’s name to hint toward an interest in the way music and words sound at the receiving end of a broadcast medium). The atmosphere of the album’s nine songs can vary wildly, though, ranging from the grounded romance of “Poppy,” the accumulating tension of the brooding “Dreams,” to the resolute, sorrowful “Don’t Love You.” The changes in atmosphere are usually accomplished by differences in instrumentation. “Poppy,” the most straightforward track on the album, relies on the sound of a single repetitive guitar riff, while at other times Malone, Adebimpe, and David Andrew Sitek might use drum programming and multiple tape loops. On “Dreams” they use a drum machine, guitar, and programmed noise during the chorus, before regressing to a slower beat and ambient noises – including an emergency siren – during the verses.
While Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes could have become an exercise in studio-based formalistic noodling, Adebimpe and Malone’s vocals and lyrics give the songs structure and direction. Given the few instances when traditional instrumentation is employed in shaping a song’s melody, the burden falls almost entirely on the vocalists to keep the bottom from dropping out. For the vast majority of indie rock bands, that would spell certain doom (but who wants to write another complaint about musicians’ growing unwillingness to sing?), but Adebimpe, who usually croons but whose voice has astonishing range, and Malone, whose voice is a bit higher and a bit more rough around the edges, can certainly carry songs on their own. Indeed, the most direct song on the album, “Ambulance,” has nothing but vocals, and the vast array of harmonies make the song difficult to place either within a particular genre or emulating a particular period in music history. And the song unmistakably connects: unlike other saviors and innovators of rock music, TV on the Radio hasn’t let its music devolve into callow, dystopian fantasy.
The lyrics have a decidedly sharper edge this time around – whereas previous lyrics were of seemingly indeterminate subject manner, nearly every song on Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes has the devastating inferential power of a song like “Blind” from Young Liars. The subjects range from trenchant and far-reaching social commentary – “The Wrong Way” alludes to both the thoughtless racism of Hollywood movies and the bloody international diamond trade, which receives ample support from the music industry, and “King Eternal” seems to be a discussion of the death penalty – to more typical rock and roll fare about the difficulty of relationships (“Wear You Out,” “Don’t Love You”) and the joys of finding the right girl (“Poppy”). While the topics may succumb to rock stereotypes, the metaphors are still new, like on the torch-carrying “Ambulance”: “I will be your accident if you will be my ambulance / and I will be your screech and crash if you will be my crutch and cast.”
If occasionally the juxtaposition of topics rattles – and it is a bit jarring to hear the way the political gives way to the personal on the second half of the album – that’s a minor blemish. Indeed, it’s merely another indicator of the album’s variety. TV on the Radio now has 13 songs, two albums, and a style all its own. And once again, I can’t wait to see where things go from here.
By Tom Zimpleman