Dear Science Turns 10

Dear Science Turns 10

By 2008, TV On The Radio were already revered. Having emerged from New York’s early ’00s rock renaissance, the band immediately set themselves apart from their contemporaries and surroundings. While a lot of the big names of the day were favoring retro-leaning post-punk sounds and a devotion to a fading brand of Lower East Side edginess, TV On The Radio always sounded like the future. Here was a multi-racial art-rock collective blending genres and histories into their own unclassifiable aesthetic, sending corroded transmissions from the new frontier of Brooklyn and suggesting the next chapter of New York, and of indie music as a whole. Listeners and critics alike were enthralled.

Though the Young Liars EP was the early critical favorite, their rise started in earnest in 2004, with their debut Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, a hissing and nocturnal document issued from a city in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. In 2006, their stature was really solidified with Return To Cookie Mountain, an album that still sounds like pretty much no other artist over 10 years later. The followup to TVOTR’s sophomore outing was highly anticipated, and when Dear Science arrived 10 years ago yesterday, it delivered. (The album was also available on iTunes a week early, but its official release was September 23.) TV On The Radio were seemingly cemented as one of the seminal artists of their time.

The question of the best TV On The Radio album often seems split down micro-generational divides. Maybe you were a young art kid walking through a rattled New York, through shadows of Williamsburg not yet cast by condominium towers, and the foreboding atmospherics of Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes captured it perfectly. Perhaps the alien and arid landscapes of Return To Cookie Mountain provided the exact reflection and simultaneous escape as the ’00s wore on into bleaker times enmeshed in two wars at once. That album, in particular, still looms large over their catalog — in specifically “Wolf Like Me,” probably their best-loved song.

But if you were, say, a college freshman when Dear Science arrived, it’s hard to shake the feeling that this was and is TV On The Radio’s definitive work. If you came of age at that juncture — a child during 9/11 with faint memories of the supposed halcyon ’90s, conscious only of a reality defined by war and an incompetent government, a burgeoning surveillance state, the growing upheaval of digital existence, the impending financial crisis — Dear Science lives on as the soundtrack of those times.

Regardless of where you land, or even if you prefer the band’s later albums, it’s hard to argue that TV On The Radio ever matched the resonance of Dear Science before or after. That they ever exactly replicated the album’s ability to engage with the world outside while also still carving out its completely own imagined place. It remains their most successful release to this day.

As soon as you put on Dear Science, the foreshadowing of lead singles “Dancing Choose” and “Golden Age” was confirmed. “Halfway Home” had the same dizzying amount of elements  bouncing off one another — the propulsive beat, Tunde Adebimpe’s percussive ’60s pop vocals turning to yearning coos, guitars existing in some space between washed-out shoegaze and garage-rock fervor. But part of what made Cookie Mountain so unsettling and transfixing was just how strange its melodic ideas were, like TVOTR were siphoning bits of music from a parallel dimension. With Dear Science, they still sounded like nobody else, but they were starting to ever so slightly corral their most idiosyncratic tendencies into something resembling pop music.
This, at the time, was sort of shocking. Fans had come to expect TV On The Radio to be prophets of the apocalypse, with the attendant sound to match. On Cookie Mountain, they’d perfected a sound that conjured up blood-stained deserts and volcanic ash, a wrecked world in a not-so-distant future. Darkness still hung over Dear Science, but all the sudden the group had decided to throw a dance party for the end times. By 2008, things were worse if anything. But the band offered some glimpse of hope, the mere fact that we continued surviving a promise that there could be something else on the horizon.

Part of the stylistic surprise of Dear Science has to do with the context of the ’00s. Just a couple years earlier, indie bands were still fairly stringent in their commitment to rock as the serious form, the one you had to still follow closely. Even for a genre-imploding act like TV On The Radio, Dear Science stood out for a newfound embrace of synth-heavy tracks and dance rhythms. Bowie’s Berlin era, Talking Heads, and Prince were all present, alongside earthier traditions like funk and Afrobeat, all colliding in a groove-centric album as rendered by robots. There’s a synthetic quality to the album that suggested both humanity’s demise and their ascension.

It’s not like TV On The Radio had made a pop album, though, even if they were warping pop lineages to fit into their own DNA. “Dancing Choose” was a bizarre rap/funk/electronic hybrid that was frantic and bug-eyed enough to sum up the floor-falling-out-from-under-us feeling of the decade; it plays just as emphatically 10 years later, in the thick of an era characterized by media over-saturation and the fragility of truth. “Shout Me Out” begins like a daydream on a space station, then erupts into an art-punk rave-up. “Golden Age” was a glorious party, “Red Dress” a defiant and angered one.

The album still fired off into all sorts of unforeseen directions, still combined genres deftly. In its way, that made Dear Science just as avant-garde as its predecessors, now perhaps even more visionary for the way in which it streamlined these elements into a package that felt like pop music just slightly adjacent to our beyond our current-day reality. Dave Sitek’s production style allowed neon-hued synths and the blaring horns of Antibalas to coexist, all these competing sounds working together to imagine a new world.

The word “utopia” was thrown around a bit with Dear Science, by both the band themselves and music journalists. “The age of miracles/ The age of sound/ Well there’s a Golden Age/ Comin’ round, comin’ round, comin’ round!” goes the chorus of “Golden Age.” Given the bleakness of TV On The Radio’s prior work, and the dire circumstances outlined on many of Dear Science’s death-fixated tracks, you could mistake that for a bit of nihilistic sarcasm. But the band meant that earnestly. That was the new world Dear Science was creating: accounting for racism and violence and societal collapse and humanity’s self-destruction in an effort to portray what could come from the ashes. Their other music took place amidst destruction. Dear Science hinted at what came after.

The rest of the context of 2008 is, of course, also impossible to shake when discussing Dear Science 10 years later. The promise of possibility and of change, the possibility of another day, became more tangible when the country shifted. When Obama got elected, this seemed to be the Golden Age that had been coming around, the reorientation of our country back to something resembling the right path through history. And yet, just as much Obama’s story can remain inspiring, we were naïve with how much hope we placed on that turning point. For once in their career, TV On The Radio might’ve been too optimistic.

I don’t need to tell you what happened, how the narrative got upended. Things came back around the other way, again, and naturally a recurring topic in revisiting Dear Science is how all the reasons it was resonant then haven’t actually gotten any better. Most of them have gotten worse. So of course, the band who once presaged Armageddon down the street once more feel like one of the most important artists of their generation, once more feel like the soundtrack for tumultuous and precipitous times.

Dear Science may have confused some listeners initially, but it went on to earn breathless accolades. It topped year-end lists, and appeared on decade retrospectives. It’s the album the band chose to honor with 10 year anniversary shows. Afterwards, in 2011 and 2014, TVOTR returned with Nine Types Of Light and Seeds, two very good albums with an equal amount of their best songs as were present on their first three collections. Nevertheless, Dear Science marked an endpoint. Ever since, it’s felt as if we’ve been taking this band for granted to some extent.

Part of it is their surroundings, things they can’t change — what was once revolutionary about TV On The Radio’s genre-agnosticism has become more commonplace, and mellowing out as they did can still get that stereotypical dismissal of artistic retreat rather than growth. If those last two albums feel more personal than the ambitious scope of Dear Science, it only reiterates what the album was able to achieve. It’s the end of a trilogy, really, one of rapid artistic evolution that begins in the deepest and darkest corners and, while still traveling those avenues, finding the ability to build a way out. After all, Dear Science has the end of the world on its mind, but it still finds time to end with an unabashed paean to lust.

That, of course, can be politically-charged in of itself, too. The idea of choosing life, of rejecting the temptation to be beaten down, defeated, by the onslaught that greets us each day. If Dear Science ended with “Love Dog” into “Shout Me Out” into “Lover’s Day,” that could be a strong argument as a final act. Moments of peace, moments of beauty, arising out of the distortion beforehand. But right before “Lover’s Day,” there’s “DLZ.”

“DLZ” is one of those funny situations where a song organically takes on larger life over time. It wasn’t an official single. It wasn’t even a key live track for the band throughout the years. But after it found placement in a crucial sequence in Breaking Bad’s second season, and as Breaking Bad itself snowballed over the course of its existence, that song took on more prominence and became one of TVOTR’s standards.

“Congratulations on the mess you made of things,” Adebimpe sings at the beginning of “DLZ.” What follows is one of TV On The Radio’s most effecting songs, a track that is equal parts swaggering and maddening. “This is beginning to feel like the long-winded blues of the never/ This is beginning to like it’s curling up slowly and finding a throat to choke,” Adebimpe continues as the song swells and intensifies around him. The song ratchets up tension like something, anything, has to break. That’s the real reason it now feels like the most enduring song on Dear Science. Slipped in at the end of the album, “DLZ” is the ferocious and anxious question of “But what if it doesn’t get better?”

Still, it did, for a while. Still, it could; cycles move around viciously, while certain things march onwards slowly and doggedly anyway. When reappraising or returning to albums like Dear Science, albums so steeped in their times and yet so urgently moving beyond them, it’s easy to view them through the lens of how things didn’t go as we planned. How they tapped into the worst aspects of our civilization that won’t seem to go away.

Yet even if that Golden Age proved tarnished, or proved fleeting, TV On The Radio weren’t entirely wrong. That’s why albums like this stick around. There are so many ways in which it feels like Dear Science is cursed to play in the backdrop of yet another set of the Bad Times. But somehow the hope it strives for doesn’t feel like an empty promise. Because 10 years later, even if we no longer look to TV On The Radio to be restless experimentalists, to have the sound of the future in their hands, Dear Science does still sound like the future. And its moments of brightness haven’t dimmed quite yet.

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