TV on the Radio return to live show after death of bassist and geographical spread
New York group take 4th album Nine Types of Light on the road
TV on the Radio have returned to the road just months after the death of their bassist, but the tour finds them far from defeated, writes David Pollock
A little over two months ago this show had ‘cancelled’ written all over it, and nobody would have grudged TV On the Radio their right. On 20th April this year, the Brooklyn-formed quintet’s bassist, Gerard Smith, died of lung cancer. The sad news came little more than a month after it was announced that Smith (whom conflicting reports state was either 34 or 36) would be taking a leave of absence to fight the illness, and a mere eight days after the release of the group’s latest album, Nine Types of Light.
Those who seek reason or explanation in such random acts of tragedy might consider the band’s decision to carry on with their world tour a conscious act of defiant solidarity, while the pragmatic may just believe that halting one of the world’s larger alternative juggernauts would have been impractical even in such dire circumstances. Either way – and after the rescheduling of a few dates in the immediate aftermath and a short but poignant statement that said, ‘We will miss him terribly’ – TVOTR returned to the road.
The new album, their fourth LP since 2004’s studio debut Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, was meant to be a resurgent comeback for a band that had reached a plateau of mainstream acceptance with 2008’s Dear Science. Even before events gave the record a whole new context, however, it wasn’t quite working out like that. Founder members David Sitek and Tunde Adebimpe, who had shepherded the group from the early lo-fi post-punk (as many bands from Brooklyn tend to be labelled) of debut self-release OK Calculator to the Letterman-appearing, Breaking Bad-soundtracking anthemics of Dear Science, were now living on opposite sides of the United States.
As much as their living arrangements had diverged, so had their musical directions. During a year away from the band, both men worked on side projects (Adebimpe actually contributing to Sitek’s Maximum Balloon, alongside David Byrne and Karen O), as did third key member Kyp Malone, while Smith and drummer Jaleel Bunton awaited TVOTR’s regrouping. However, still beleaguered by the memory of a Dear Science tour, which he described to The Guardian’s Rob Fitzpatrick shortly before the new record’s release as like ‘going to war, or being in prison’, Adebimpe found the eventual Beverley Hills recording sessions for the album to be ‘like some corporate suicide mission’.
In the end, the record isn’t so much one that systematically destroys all the mainstream goodwill they’ve built up as one that stoically steers clear of pandering for the sake of getting ahead. Where they could have turned into U2, Sitek in particular seems to remain obsessed with throwing genres at the wall almost as he thinks of them, a technique which occasionally makes for a challenging listen and often resolves itself into new and unique sounds. On Nine Types of Light, New Wave stumbles into hip hop, which careens into Prince-style funk and glossy 80s MOR production values, and everything just about manages to stay upright.
The band haven’t spoken publically since Smith’s death, beyond that statement and an appearance on Jay Leno’s show to play ‘Will Do’ without a replacement bassist at all, so what they’re feeling has gone unreported. It’s pretty obvious what their emotions might be, of course, but where they go beyond this tour is currently anyone’s guess. The Orange County Register noted of a recent date that the band seemed ‘visibly amped’ and ‘anything but downtrodden and defeated’: hopefully that energy propels them into a shared and productive future once more.
TV On the Radio play the ABC, Glasgow, Tue 28 Jun. The album Nine Types of Light is out now (Fiction Records).