TV On The Radio - Return To Cookie Mountain

In 2006, I was living in New York, breathlessly anticipating the release of both Justin Timberlake’s FutureSex/LoveSounds and TV on the Radio’s Return to Cookie Mountain. Breathlessly is definitely the wrong word, but I was excited enough to head to the Virgin Megastore at exactly midnight to buy both, because buying a record the second it went on sale was as close to being part of that record as I could get. Virgin Megastore doesn’t exist anymore. Tower Records doesn’t exist anymore. Most record stores don’t exist anymore. It’s a bummer, but it’s so engrained in the lives of music lovers that its almost beside the point. I don’t want to be a downer, music is still exciting! Buying records is still great! Those two albums, though, feel like twin beacons of what 2006 was about: unexpected genre crossover, a faint undercurrent of darkness, and a weird sort of aimlessness that brimmed with possibility.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been writing about New York’s “lost” period in music, which is admittedly skewed. Wherever you go, the scene that existed before you got there is going to feel like an idealized version of itself — slightly better, more exciting, and more pure than whatever you’re experiencing in the moment. This is a cycle that’ll repeat forever, and it births interesting music that feels untethered from anything around it. It spawns bands that mutate in front of our eyes. Watching a band struggle through this period only to see them become successful feels personal. Every period in music is a “lost” period to someone somewhere.

TV on the Radio were immediately part of a scene, though. In 2003 they joined minimal post-punks Liars and shoegazy post-punks Yeah Yeah Yeahs to form a loose circle of bands that created songs from jagged riffs and vocals powerful enough that they bordered on theatrical. It was all very confrontational, but tuneful too. It made sense. Performance was important. Being a rock capital B-A-N-D was important. It’s not surprising that all three of these bands got pretty huge, they were primed for it. TV On The Radio’s second LP, Return to Cookie Mountain, ditched all the horns and rhythm-centric tracks in favor of washes of fuzzed out guitar. Where a lot of shoegaze aims for the clouds, Cookie Mountain was gritty and rough, with Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone’s unsettling harmonies coasting over the top like rubbing sandpaper together.

The bigger song on the record was “Wolf Like Me,” which is great. It’s driving, propulsive, and catchy. But the one that always resonated with me was the deeply weird “Playhouses,” which is made up of tightly-wound buzz and stumbling drums, with Adebimpe and Malone writing about shitty alcohol breath and emotional revelations with all the clear-eyed assuredness of a 16-year-old. This isn’t a bad thing. TV on the Radio never felt much like a subtle band, so much as a band that celebrated grand gestures with all the wide-eyed verve of a lovelorn teenager. At the time, I didn’t realize it was their sincerity that I identified with, but Cookie Mountain is almost desperately sincere. From “Playhouses” to the rollicking “Blues Down Here,” and back to “Wolf Like Me.” This is an album that anticipated the end of the world. It’s clunky, often beautiful, and unafraid to be huge. The world didn’t end in 2006. Things were about to get a lot worse before they got even remotely better. Depending on where you’re sitting, we’re not in a great place. It’s hard to say if TV on the Radio jumped the gun or were riding the wave, but somehow that murkiness feels exactly right.

Comments (12)
  1. Love this album. The one-two punch of “I was A Lover” into “Hours”? Whew.

  2. Full disclosure, with the possible exception of the Young Liars EP, Nine Types Of Light is my favorite TVOTR album. When they slow things down, they absolutely kill me. When they go up-tempo, I’m totally left cold.

    • i agree with you that when these guys take their time, the payoff is almost always there. but then i’d figure you should love rtcm – besides wolf like me, this record is like molasses compared to ntol.

  3. still my favorite record of theirs, though they never disappoint

  4. Always loved Cookie Mountain but always wondered why “I Was A Lover” wasn’t a single and/or video. It felt like Interscope dropped the ball on properly promoting this album after “Wolf Like Me” was released. This album had more legs but Interscope is notorious for this type of misstep.

  5. One of the best records of the last ten years.

  6. 2006 was most definitely a “lost period” in NYC music. I was living in the Burg. Music scene was dead dead dead.

    Yeah yeah yeahs had started playing most of the Is Is songs in 2003 or 2004 when the scene still had sparks. By the time the EP actually came out in 2007 there were like no other good bands left in the city (despite the fact that I would see TV on the Radio members around the burg all the time and they were still putting out good records, they didn’t really feel part of any music scene.)

  7. I saw them around the beginning of 2007 in Athens playing mostly Cookie stuff. Incredible show, if not only for the fact that most of the hip trash in my town had made a mass exodus to the “Burg.” Their absence made for a really wonderful crowd, just people who loved music.

  8. In 2006, I had begun my first big boy job – in Tallahassee, FL, selling $40k associates degrees to impoverished single moms, schizophrenics, felonious monks (well, a former preacher who got tagged for stealing cars), the aimless and the elderly. That’s goes not to pass judgment or create a separation between myself and the students but to show what lengths and debts people will take on once they reach the end of their rope and are rubbing that last fiber between their thumb and forefinger for good luck. The fine print of that brochure is that the ‘investment being made in their own future’ is one that may never pay off as the debt incurred may never be paid back once the interest compounded on that Stafford loan eclipses the face value of that AA diploma and the $10/hour job in which it promises to place you.

  9. Isn’t describing this record as part of the “record store” era a little revisionist?

    There was an enormous gap between its first leak and its retail release. No one was waiting outside a record store to hear Return to Cookie Mountain for the first time, they all had burnt copies six months earlier.

    It’s actually an early example of the modern leak, tweak, leak, and then eventually release cycle. Like College Dropout, the bootleg track order still sounds more familiar than the official one.

    • Depends who you ask but I, for one, was very much opposed to leaks back then for that very reason. I actually worked at a record store at the time and made it a point to avoid leaks of albums I was interested in. I wanted to hear it the way the artist intended when they were ready to show me. It’s gotten better these days, as artists seem to have better control of when something leaks, and to what quality it leaks. But in ’06, a leak was blasphemy to me.

      (Having said that…I wasn’t aware of Cookie Mountain until months after it’s official release.)

  10. This album was a definite grower for me. I was a bit put off at first (I guess I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t what I got) and didn’t give it the attention it needed until a year or so after. Also, once I heard Liars’ Drum’s Not Dead and Fiery Furnaces Bitter Tea, Cookie Mountain suddenly came alive by comparison. And then those two albums took their time to soak in (still working on Drums Not Dead actually…never did truly appreciate that one). So I tend to lump these albums together from that period.

    When I listen to it now, Cookie Mountain is an incredible album. An almost tribal sense of emotive power. For a long time I actually considered Dear Science the better album by a long shot, but these days it’s hard for me to decide.

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