TV On The Radio were well on their way to becoming indie rock royalty by 2006. They had a pioneering sound, one that spliced together post-rock and doo-wop and avant-garde electronics and rock ‘n’ roll as if they viewed guitar-driven indie not as a destination but a starting point, a software template to be hacked beyond recognition. They had recorded some truly incredible songs, particularly the ones on their star-making Young Liars EP. By their very existence they had challenged stereotypes about what an indie-rock band could look like, a mostly black lineup in an almost paralyzingly white field.
What they did not have yet was an undeniable classic album. Their 2004 debut LP Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes was good, not great. It blasted out of the gate with post-apocalyptic brass detonation “The Wrong Way” — considering one of this band’s early releases was called OK Calculator, let’s call it “The National Anthem” hopped up on Williamsburg cocaine — followed by the magnificent, previously released “Staring At The Sun” and its quieter companion “Dreams,” a couple of power ballads from some imaginary dystopian sci-fi film. It was one of the great opening sequences of the decade, but Desperate Youth more or less fell off a cliff after that. On the whole the album felt slight after the monumental promise of Young Liars. It’s never good for forward momentum when the best song on your album is the one that already appeared on a previous project.
So rather than facing down a sophomore slump, TVOTR were still in search of their defining statement as LP2 approached. With the preposterously titled Return To Cookie Mountain, released 10 years ago this week in the UK (and about two months later in the US), they found it big time. Yes, the Super Mario World-repping album includes “Wolf Like Me,” their signature song and one of the greatest singles in rock history. But just as importantly, it’s a thrill from start to finish. This was the album that established once and for all that TV On The Radio were more than just a great idea for a band; they were a great band, period.
These guys always knew how to make an entrance. In this case it was the skipping, stuttering “I Was A Lover,” about which: Imagine an android marching band suffered a collective meltdown upon witnessing the world’s sickest pump-fake and the resultant Vine loop became the foundation for a discordant noise-pop powerhouse about the ways modern life isolates and divides us. Sure, Vine was still several years off and android marching bands haven’t been invented (yet!), but TVOTR always did sound like the future. The early leaked version of the album kicked off with “Wolf Like Me,” which is hard to dispute but might have set them up to repeat the previous album’s front-loaded feeling — because really there’s nowhere to go but down after “Wolf Like Me.” It was smart to set the scene with such a triumphal mindfuck instead.
Having sufficiently adjusted your perspective, TVOTR proceeded to apply their singular touch to a whole swath of sounds both modern and classic. Among the finest was the lighters-up anthem “Province,” on which they became one of the only young indie bands of the era to translate their David Bowie cosign into a David Bowie guest feature. The Thin White Duke’s freakishly magisterial voice matched with Tunde Adebimpe’s rich bellow and Kyp Malone’s craggy falsetto made for quite the trippy vocal triad on an otherwise straightforward song. “Playhouses” is a visceral tumble of noise and percussion, maybe the most claustrophobic track TVOTR ever made. The future-yodel “A Method” pushed the band’s obsession with open space to extremes while still jamming in more rhythmic elements than some bands manage on a whole album. Ditto “Let The Devil In,” the best Pogues song U2 never wrote. Head-bob guarantor “Blues From Down Here” boasts a swift undertow and lyrics about shark-infested waters. And it all ends with “Tonight” and “Wash The Day Away” a pair of epics that respectively strip this band’s racket down to its melodic core before building it back to one more all-consuming wash of sound.
No shots at the other songs, all of which are varying degrees of fantastic, but we’ve gone far too long without celebrating “Wolf Like Me.” Dudes, “Wolf Like Me”! This thing rolls in like a black tide, a sweeping wave of dark melodic noise with Adebimpe surfing atop, howling his head off and showing you tricks that’ll blow your mind. It’s one of the simplest songs in TV On The Radio’s catalog, a few ominous chords constructed from fuzz and tricked out with Dave Sitek’s usual honking, whirring ambient anarchy, topped off with a vocal performance that suggests Adebimpe is just as exhilarated as we are. Every time I’ve seen TV On The Radio, the mood has intensified when they played this one. My body tingles with adrenaline, everyone around me starts to jump and flail, and the band channels everyone’s energy into a show-stopping performance. Everyone present seems to realize it’s such a privilege to see a legendary band performing their most timeless song. For reasons that extend far beyond the brilliance of “Wolf Like Me,” that legend was sealed with Return To Cookie Mountain.