Halfway through ‘Poppy’, the emotional centre of TV on the Radio’s debut album, vocalists Tunde Adebimpe…
Halfway through ‘Poppy’, the emotional centre of TV on the Radio’s debut album, vocalists Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone howl that they are, “so psyched, so fucking psyched!”. The lyrics, hollow and desperate, are emblematic of TV on the Radio’s bleak, definitive and prescient 2004 album Desperate Youth, Bloodthristy Babes that celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. The album is a staggering triumph of both time and place.
The record has to be understood in the specific tumultuous time from which it merged: musically, a group of young Brooklyn bands were beginning to make New York the centre of the progressive music universe again, led by The Strokes, Liars and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Politically, the great imperial America had been bruised to its core in 2001 and the last two years had seen an increasingly dictatorial President invade foreign lands and enact draconian laws to punish supposed American ‘threats’ by banishing them to a desolate Cuban island.
Out of this maelstrom of highbrow music and fierce geopolitics came Despearate Youth, its title invoking the sense of dread, isolation and fear felt in the US at the time. Its inversion of free-form jazz, post-punk and art rock made it gloomily spiritual and stirringly soulful. The band at the time was a three piece made up of lead singer, Tunde Adebimpe, guitarist Dave Sitek – who together had released the spellbinding Young Liars EP in 2003 – but were now joined on this album by bespectacled and be-afroed guitarist and second vocalist, Kyp Malone. The band’s creative influences ran the full gamut from The Velvet Underground, Miles Davis, Talking Heads to Siouxsie and The Banshees. But what they did have over their fellow talented Brooklyn contemporaries was that they managed to transcend their influences to make their sound truly one of a kind. A lot of time was spent labouring over the racial make-up of this predominantly African-American band, which in future years would become with the addition of members even more African-American, but the most startling aspect of the band was their distinct sound – that was indebted to the past but also dramatically relevant.
The album begins with the chugged motorik thud of a riff on ‘Wrong Way’ showcasing Adebimpe and Malone, who probably still represent the best vocal combination in modern rock music, with Adebimpe’s full-blooded tenor augmented by Malone’s cracking falsetto. The song starts with the classic lyrics, “Wake up in a magic nigger movie / With the bright lights pointed at me / As a metaphor / Teachin’ folks the score / About patience, understanding, agape babe / And sweet sweet amour”, slavishly cutting through a lot of Morgan Freeman’s cinematography and the representation of black people in cinema through the stock ‘magical negro‘ character. Adebimpe ends with the lyric, “Hey, desperate youth! Oh, blood thirsty babes! / Oh your guns are pointed the wrong way”, commenting on the recent war in the Middle East and how the real enemies – in white, capitalist America – were back at home.
‘Staring At The Sun’ is the second song and shows that TV On The Radio are not only great lyricists but also great songwriters with a glassy and spellbinding guitar riff that became one of their most recognizable tracks. The band was ably assisted by good friend and collaborator, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’, Nick Zinner. The band, without a drummer, opted for skeletal drum machin arrangements such as on the eerie, ‘Dreams’ where Adebimpe sings to an ex, “But you were my favorite moment / Of our dead century”.
This is the subtle power of the album, in that it battles grand themes – America’s empire, war and greed – through the medium of failed and blossoming relationships, where each emotional failing is a metaphor for broken ambitions and political hubris. The creepy water-soaked à cappella of ‘Ambulance’ shows this directly, by comparing love to a reciprocal series of grave injuries, Adebimpe pleads, “Oh I will be your ambulance / If you will be my accident / I will be your screech and crash if you will be my crutch and cast / And I will be your one more time if you will be my one last chance”.
Despite the weightiness of the motifs that this album traverses it is not dark or depressing, but the minimal sound does makes it very insular, best heard alone at night. As the band have revisited in their two later landmarks albums Return To Cookie Mountain and Dear Science, the only recourse to living in fucked up times, is to fuck. To make love in the face of war, to live fully despite the impending sense of doom that seems around us. ‘King Eternal’ finds the band dancing in the face of Armageddon and the final standout ‘Wear You Out’ where Malone in his most carnal plea, laments to a lover, “Let me wear you out”.
As TV On The Radio prepare to release a new album this year, they remain the most acclaimed band to come out of that early-2000s scene because, unlike their contemporaries who seemed to be in awe and reverence of their surroundings, TV on the Radio seemed to be aware of and downright terrified of them. The album remains relevant because our mood and our climate is hardly any better and its fanatical call to arms, through love and knowledge, has never seemed more vital. With the walls closing in on them they chose to party – in the only way they knew how.