2014 has been an interesting year for the creative forces behind the early-’00s New York rock renaissance. Julian Casablancas went into messily experimental prog-pop overdrive on Tyranny, while Karen O turned toward lo-fi insularity on Crush Songs. One album had too many ideas; the other had not enough. Interpol, meanwhile, continued to do Interpol things on El Pintor, and it was fine if you really like Interpol things. The Walkmen dissolved, with three different members going on to make really good Walkmen-ish solo albums that not enough people heard. TV On The Radio were also a part of that early-’00s moment, but unlike those other bands, they were not of it. They stood apart — more concerned with ideas of transcendence, less concerned with whatever they might’ve been wearing. With their new album Seeds, TVOTR end a three-and-a-half-year absence that felt way longer. It’s not altogether fair to compare Seeds to the band’s peak-era albums; it’s never fair to do that to bands to do amazing things and then have the gall to continue working. But if Seeds isn’t the best TV On The Radio album — and it isn’t — it’s still a big, sweeping, powerful statement. And TVOTR are doing a whole lot better these days than most of their contemporaries.
If TVOTR had never gotten around to making Seeds, nobody would’ve been able to complain. The band’s last album, 2011’s Nine Types Of Light, was received as a disappointment when it arrived, but it was really a lovely, small, soulful piece of work. It suffered, perception-wise, just because it came after a couple of straight-up classics, but it’s aged beautifully. Nine Types Of Light sounded like a winding-down, though. This band who’d once made vast, monolithic decaying-guitar epics were murmuring rather than bellowing, and turning their concerns inward where they’d once taken on the world. Just nine days after the album came out, bassist Gerard Smith died suddenly and tragically, of lung cancer. Once the band had gotten done touring behind the album, its various members turned their attention toward their assorted side projects. They never seemed to be in any hurry to come back together at full strength. But here they are.
If the TV On The Radio of Seeds sound less like a full-on band than they ever have before, that’s probably understandable. It also goes a long way toward explaining why Seeds sounds weirdly slight, even compared to Nine Types Of Light. This time around, TVOTR don’t sound like musicians in a room together, attempting to make they biggest sound they can conjure. The component parts of their sound come across as cold and clinical, like they were built in isolation and then assembled together in a lab. There’s more of a synthetic buzz than ever before. There are some great guitar parts on Seeds, like the starry-eyed jangle on “Could You.” But that riff, on that song, has to share space with patched-in horns and synthetic bass-buzz and xylophone tings. Those electronic elements can sound great, like the shimmering ambience on the haunted album centerpiece “Ride.” But they sound more distant than ever before; that glued-together quality is hell on the band’s chemistry.
Still, TVOTR are essentially incapable of making a bad album. Even their full-length debut Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, made when they were still figuring their sound out, couldn’t help but be pretty good. And Seeds is better than pretty good. It’s very good, and sometimes it’s great. A lot of that is down to Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone’s vocals, which are stronger and fuller and more expressive than they’ve ever been. A song like “Careful You,” maybe the weakest thing here, would’ve been absolutely flat if it came from almost any other band. But Adebimpe throws himself into it physically, crooning in French before uncorking that galactic howl on the chorus. On album opener “Quartz,” the different singers in the band layer their vocals, and it’s like what might happen if Radiohead somehow taught themselves to sing doo-wop; it’s fantastic. “Winter” is the most straightforward rocker here, and it’s also the one where Adebimpe steps most decisively into the frontman role, issuing a powerful pinched roar. The album-closing title track is just crushingly gorgeous, like Peter Gabriel leading the Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys through an ancient gospel song. If TV On The Radio are still capable of a song like “Seeds,” then they still have plenty left to teach us.
The Premature Evaluation format is probably more unfair to TV On The Radio than to almost any other band. TVOTR’s songs rarely reveal themselves on first listen. They burrow deep into your brain, and they grow. You’ll idly throw on one of their albums after forgetting about it for months, and one of its songs will immediately become the most beautiful thing you’ve ever heard. Or you’ll stop thinking about the album and then surprise yourself by suddenly needing to hear one of its songs right now. The TV On The Radio of Return To Cookie Mountain and Dear Science sounded like they were trying to swallow the universe whole, and that was amazing; we were lucky to have them. They’re not that anymore, and they probably never will be again. They are still capable of doing incredible things, though. And don’t be surprised if Seeds takes over your life a few months from now. It wouldn’t be the first time the band pulled this off. For now, though, it’s just a contained but potent album from a band with nothing left to prove.