With Nine Types of Light, it would seem TV on the Radio have finally reached their comfort zone, albeit one that still leaves them plenty of room to indulge in their trademark howling about the ugliness of modern times as well as their equally familiar buzzy art-funk. The latest from the heavily acclaimed Brooklyn crew doesn’t stray too far from the sounds and textures that worked so well for them on Dear Science, but I’d say that a little steadiness is just what the doctor ordered at this point in their career. After all, this is the band that switched from the slack sarcasm of OK Calculator to the world-beating brilliance of the Young Liars EP in one move, then from the mostly inert plodding of Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes to the hugely dynamic, urgent art-rock of Return to Cookie Mountain. They’ve been consistently challenging themselves since the beginning, and they’ve earned a victory lap.
And who are we to complain when their victory lap comes in the form of the sharp, professional, and emotionally resonant Nine Types of Light? As ever, TV on the Radio is looking for love and meaningful connections in an increasingly chaotic world, and they’re channeling the accompanying frustrations of that process into tense, surgical art-funk. Dave Sitek is still a master at dressing up Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone’s elegiac heartache and tightly wound paranoia with taut and insistent soundscapes.
In a move that seems curious at first but turns inspired on repeated listens, TV on the Radio back-load Nine Types of Light with their most intense material, and stick the slow-burners right up front. The album opens with Adebimpe’s awkward murmuring on “Second Song” (a song designed to sound like it slips into a groove almost by accident), and closes with the bombastic “Big Beat”-style ROCK of “Caffeinated Consciousness”. Inadvertently or not, this makes Nine Types of Light play almost like a mirror image of Dear Science, with the latter album coming out great guns and mostly retreating after its lovely, stately centerpiece (“Family Tree”), and the former starting out meekly and then getting fired up after its lovely, stately centerpiece (“Killer Crane”).
It’s a canny move, as TV on the Radio must know that they’ve earned enough goodwill to keep their listeners focused for the earlier, calmer stuff. And the more visceral material shows up in time to bring the audience back to complete attention. Adebimpe opens the album urging “every lover on a mission” to “shift their known position into the light,” and Nine Types of Light’s cautious and infectious optimism makes a convincing case for staying hopeful in fractious times.