Here’s a question I hadn’t really considered until just now: Does TV on the Radio constitute a supergroup? There’s some obvious evidence to the contrary, specifically that none of its members were famous before the band. And the term “supergroup” is so loaded that it shouldn’t be applied liberally. But all of its members have robust solo careers—since 2008’s Dear Science, Kyp Malone and Dave Sitek each released solo albums. Even more illustrative, though, is how each member seems to refer to the band in interviews: Malone, Sitek, and Tunde Adebimpe seem continuously shocked that they are still together, as if TV on the Radio were a side project that kept growing.
This week’s release of Nine Types of Light should make fans very happy that the band is still together. Despite the broad tastes and styles of the band’s members, TVOTR has developed a coherent sound that is uniquely its own, which its members would be unable to match without one another. Indeed, the band’s different sounds have blended together so well that I often can’t even tell who is singing on a particular song.
On past albums, the multitude of styles that TVOTR comprises has led to songs that tend to change on a dime—like “King Eternal”—or that tend to sound frenetic, like a lot of songs being played at once—like “Dancing Choose.” Nine Types of Light, on the other hand, has a more relaxed, deliberate sound. The differences are clear from the very beginning. “Second Song,” the first song on the album,* begins slowly, with just Adebimpe’s voice over a lone note, before adding a crisp, simple drumbeat. Of course, the song gets more complex than that, but it is essentially built around the vocal interplay between Adebimpe and Malone, creating a rather straightforward song.
*Which I assume is so named primarily to confuse illegal downloaders about the track listing.
Combining that with the next track, “Keep Your Heart” — one of TVOTR’s slower, more subtle tracks — gives NToL a slow build. Even “You,” the third track, settles into a laidback groove after a more radio-friendly, danceable opening riff. This is possibly a weakness of the album, since it doesn’t hold your attention with the immediacy of TVOTR’s previous work, but it’s also a sign of confidence; the band’s sound translates beyond the hectic hooks of its more famous songs.
“No Future Shock,” though, is much more familiar territory for the band. It has a steady, catchy beat, while simultaneously swinging wildly from one sound to another, emphasizing guitars, horns, and different types of percussion at various points throughout the song. Indeed, the album picks up the pace in the second half, as the songs get shorter and faster. Even so, it maintains the subtle style shifts throughout the album. Even a more hook-driven song like “Repetition” builds gradually to its boiling point, and erupts in very distinct stages.
The first single from the album, “Will Do,” is my favorite It combines the ominously swirling sounds that TVOTR featured on Dear Science’s “DLZ” with a more playful and upbeat melody. Such a combination seems hard to pull off but creates a great song—I can even look past lyrics like “It might be impractical to seek out a new romance / We won’t know the actual if we never take the chance,” which are really beneath TVOTR’s usual standard (a standard that is, however, generally maintained on the album).
“Caffeinated Consciousness,” the album’s second single, closes it out in a somewhat misleading fashion. The song sounds more, well, caffeinated than most of the previous songs on the album. While this does end NToL on an exciting note, it’s not particularly representative.
The song that perhaps best represents what is different on the new album is “Killer Crane,” which comes right as NToL is transitioning to its quicker, more uptempo second half. “Killer Crane,” on the other hand, is the slowest song on the album, as well as the longest. Rather than sounding tedious, though, “Killer Crane” constantly develops, adding layers and then taking them away, tossing in short, familiar musical phrases, and occasionally dwelling only on Adebimpe’s voice and lyrics. It’s not as riveting as some of TVOTR’s other songs, but it is deceptively just as complex and interesting.
Overall, Nine Types of Light isn’t as groin-grabbingly transcendent as Dear Science, or as adventurous and inventive as Return to Cookie Mountain or Desperate Youth, Blood Thirty Babes, but it is complex and daring in its own right. It does things TVOTR has never done before, while meshing them into the distinct style that the band has created after almost a decade together now. Supergroup or not, TV on the Radio continues to impress with every new album.