The narrative seems straightforward enough. Band releases low-key follow-up to a strident, populist career-best. One of the band passes, tragically, nine days after the album’s launch. Three years later, the band regroups with a contemplative effort dedicated to their lost friend.
This is lazy. TV On The Radio remain a scuzzy group of art-rockers indebted to the elemental howl of the guitar and the ability a synthesizer has to alternatively squelch and caress and destroy. They were always fond of a ballad, and this fondness has not been misplaced. On Seeds, their first post-Gerard Smith album, they come across exacting and airbrushed when necessary; at other times, the music is gloriously grainy and unrestrained in order to provide the catharsis their career has always tailgated.
As with Wilco (The Album), it is all too easy to ignore the nuance and variation in favour of observing a general sense of maturity or comfort. You might alight on the eagle-like guitar lead in “Quartz”, the opener, rather than the way it plonks you in media res, stressful ersatz South Asian percussion surrounding you. You might view “Ride” with particular disdain owing to its Coldplay-like Ivory tinkling and heart-on-sleeve arrangement and harmonies, missing the relentless motorik beat, the solemn and dank intro redolent of Low-era Bowie.
In fact, there is a pervading sense of energy rather than contemplation on Seeds, especially in the final third, which in looking back to bratty Brooklynite trends (the thrashy, phlegmy “Lazerray”; the masterful Wes Anderson pastoral of “Trouble”) points TV On The Radio towards a bright, rocket-fuelled future.
For all that, the finest thing on Seeds is a finer feeling indeed. Coming after “Happy Idiot”, a “Wolf Like Me” for a ProTools generation, “Test Pilot” is an oversaturated evocation of adventure and loss. In thrall to overtones, the song rides beautifully ugly sheets of guitar that resonate far into the universe. Tunde Adebimpe turns in a vocal performance that’s part icy detachment, part wounded brother. Behind him, Kyp Malone’s backing vocals add fallen-angel grandeur. That titular lyric, “And we are going to need the strength / It takes to pave the way / And be the first test pilot”, is as heartbreaking as it is savvy. And then the whole thing fizzles out into a spectral haze, like the lost cousin of “Love Dog”.
Is Seeds as fine a distillation of TV On The Radio’s output to date as is possible? Arguably.
The band’s pair of vocalists, as distinct from each other as they are from the rest of humanity, nail every mood. Adebimpe comes across raspy and punky, then smouldering and estuarine (notably on the closing title-track, another highlight of tension-and-release). Malone, on the few occasions he takes the lead, is bruised by war but still a lover (as on another slow-burning epic, “Love Stained”). On the sprightly “Could You”, Malone has his own high-point in wordplay, asking, “Could you work to build something besides a wall?” The rhythms across the album stretch from spastic drum machines to fluid rock standards. Throughout, Dave Sitek’s guitar sounds like all kinds of wounded animals, and his production runs the gamut of the highlights of his career.
There is no single moment of ascension, true, and nor is there an all-consuming mood that will lift the album to the critics’ stratosphere. But if this is what adulthood in Shangri La sounds like, take me there.