Coming Down the Mountain

Barbershop under the bridge: Brooklyn's TV on the Radio

TV On the Radio
Return to Cookie Mountain

My friend Chad insists that the hottest thing you can say to someone is "don't stop," but he's clearly never heard TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe croon, "I meant every word." This assurance is one of the hottest punk prostrations since the zipless fuck of Sonic Youth's "Shadow of a Doubt." Pledges of sincerity and pure passion hardly have a place outside the pejorative turf of the emo ghetto, but TV on the Radio's second player, Return to Cookie Mountain, isn't jinxed by these things; here, they are matters for the grown and sexy.

The quintet of TV on the Radio came to us via the Brooklyn dance-punk explosion of 2003. To speak of dance-punk these days is purely a mortuary science—most of the bright lights are now just also-rans and jam bands of the coke-set. The few that got out and made good (TVOTR, Ted Leo, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs) not only succeeded, but superceded; instead of low-stake anthems for nights on the dance floor, they're spitting back a lifetime of ennui in your face and stealing your breath with a sigh and a lick. Having a band save your life is an awfully bourgeois fortune in the face of the tragedies of the Bush-begotten apocalypse, but if the suggestion exists, it exists within TV on the Radio's Cookie Mountain. It's an album of an eyes-open cynicism and prurience ripened amid wartime; ribald joy and grief-tempering hope; living and dying; the streets and the sheets.

While every band member's talent is put to exhaustive use on Cookie Mountain, frontman Adebimpe is the band's core, the molten heat of his voice radiating through the album's dense mantle of samples, horns, and guitar detritus. The sound is a gorgeous, multi-track, multi-voice dichotomy of femme-aggression and masculine vulnerability copped directly from Prince's 1999. Adebimpe's angel-headed falsettos double over gross-grain tenor while baritone "ooh"s make for a poignant sort of agony. The gut-shanking visceral splay of his voice is raw with sensuous temerity. Adebimpe learned to sing by joining a barbershop quartet, and his harmonies bear the mark of one: Often, he's accompanied by the punk hissing of guitarist Kyp Malone or the witchy singing of Celebration vocalist Katrina Ford. She plays Tammy to his Marvin, her voice like a scythe, blading through his richly toned doxologies.

Cookie Mountain is a love record—which, by its nature, makes it an antiwar record. Hearts and love are its main currency: "your hands reach 'round my heart in love," "my heart's aflame," "hearts courageous," "under the stars, talkin' 'bout love," "hearts that blaze," "rusty hearts," "open my heart, let it bleed on to yours," "diamond-encrusted love," "unbridled love." But the album's manifest lies within "Province"—"love is the province of the brave." For all its romance, Cookie Mountain forgoes the mystical shit for a pragmatic ecstasy. Its ardor is of the here-and-now, green and corporeal; its terra firma is liquored tongues and sexual entropy playing out on the platform of the F-train stop.

But the record has another side, far less sweet. The solemn album opener, "I Was a Lover," is a spit forged in disgust, with martial beats and looped samples that come on like cheap drugs. The song details a divide: As Adebimpe's voice stretches sinuously, he snaps, "we don't make eye contact," each syllable getting its full weight in venom. The accusation is directed inward, not outward. But it's "Tonight," a please-live lament near the end of the album, that is the aesthetic heart of Return to Cookie Mountain, born of both its darkness and its light. It's an autumnal lullaby sung at desperate dusk, a sort of "Needle and the Damage Done" prequel: "The needle, the dirty spoon, the flames and the fumes/Just throw them out tonight/The time that you've been afforded/May go unsolved, unrewarded" sings Adebimpe, over a languid, tidal beat of a tambourine.

It's a cool come-on, engendered with the post-modern experience of love and brokenness in half-wrecked world, which arrives humbly enough amid lucid dub, double-dutch beats, and the most intoxicating guitar bombast to come down the pike since Talk Talk's Spirit of Eden. It's a rapturous gift of an album, from a band that continually promises greatness. TVOTR have come down from Cookie Mountain with a stoned tableau, a commanding work etched with a lust for life and touched with genius.

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