Sweeping and ambitious in scope, this is an eclectic record with so many levels it will take literally weeks to properly decode. Near impossible to predict, the record twists and turns, changing key, pitch and tempo - but never seems disengaging.
Halfway Home starts the album with pounding drums, hand-claps and a be-bop harmony building up the pace and pressure quickly and steadily. The track is a perfect gateway into the album - to the point that that it momentarily seems to have escalated things prematurely to a momentum that cannot be maintained. Just when it can't build anymore, a last minute tempo shift takes things up another notch - leaving you floating on the full steam of this relentless album. Like a crash course in TVOTR you are now schooled and ready to proceed.
Described as having a 'pop edge', that edge could at its most accessible be described as being as equally inspired by the likes of N.E.R.D. or Outkast as by the more rock roots of T.V.O.T.R.'s previous records. The rapped vocals of Dancing Choose stray dangerously close to cringeworthy, holding strong on just the right side of Blondie or the Edge's embarrassing efforts for long enough to balanced out by the delicate chorus - just one of dozens of unpredictable changes in the electric song-writing of the album.
The sound may be wide, but never seems scattergun. It's radio friendly but still relatively weird - and as a band TV On The Radio seem thoroughly cohesive and dedicated to the task at hand. Dave Sitek's production is immaculate, polishing and smoothing the uncountable elements into a densely packed whole - from the Bob Marley-esque bass-line of Golden Age to the twisted ballad Family Tree, which slows the pace a little, pitched perfectly at the old "end of side one / start of side two" point on the record. Close in style to 4AD's own This Mortal Coil, the track layers slow vocals over delicate string arrangements, building beautifully in momentum to end with trip-hop drums.
Red Dress and Love Dog provide side two highlights, and by the time you make it through to the electric frenzy of DLZ, or the anthemic drums and brass-band of Lover's Day it's all become something of a rousing finale, bookending the record by maintaining the momentum of the opening track so totally, that there's an almost euphoric atmosphere as the last note passes. There's a substantial range of bonus track and limited-edition type versions of the album, but after the logical conclusion of Lover's Day I can't imagine they'll do much to improve the shape of this perfectly paced and superbly crafted album.
TV On The Radio set the bar pretty high with Return To Cookie Mountain, but I'm happy to report that their 2006 album now seems like The Bends next to Dear Science's OK Computer. Both great records for sure, but this seems like an evolutionary leap forward and a shoring up of the band's sound and ambition. A certain contender for 2008's best-of lists and a consistently rewarding listen.