Across four essential albums, TV on the Radio has established themselves as today’s preeminent funk band, steadily pushing their sound down strange new avenues. While groups like James Brown’s Famous Flames radicalized soul into aggressive, staccato party music, TV on the Radio has flipped the equation, twisting a steady base of sharp horns and falsetto vocals into a decidedly experimental framework, leaving their brass section as a pillar of stability amid dense, often bizarrely structured songs. Nine Types of Light furthers this experiment, a stripped-down, contemplative effort that’s just as piquantly oblique and imaginative.
Opener “Second Song” uses the warm trumpets at the center of the song as a magnet, pulling together the loose snatches of instrumentation it picks up along the way. The album feels both sparser and more diverse than the band’s last three; if it’s not as boldly epochal as any of them, it’s because the group’s sound is already so fixed and sturdy. This leaves it as a bit of expert reshuffling and organization, embracing similar methods while pushing out in several different directions at once.
Tracks like “Keep Your Heart” dare to keep quiet; pitched at a very long six minutes, it wanders from one looped element to another, fiddling with all types of sounds on the way to a forcefully flat climax. TV on the Radio has always messed around with long songs, but comparing “Ambulance,” from Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, with “Keep Your Heart” reveals a huge difference, the former song working as an organic, purely vocal experiment, versus the twitching patchwork of the latter.
Like many of the tracks here, “Keep Your Heart” can be read as a kind of deconstruction of how the band’s songs work, anchoring heaps of fuzz and noise to the soothing repetition of certain elements, here via strings and synths. In one of the band’s many dualities, guitars represent chaos, pushing tracks up toward madness, while horns modulate and relax. It’s another way they represent a progression from classic funk bands, employing brass not to punch through the genteel trappings of traditional structures, but to ground songs that have devolved into sonic chaos. Like the masterful Dear Science, which turned the conflict between reason and nature into a musical treatise, Nine Types of Light is inevitably concerned with the way disorder and tranquility flow into and out of each other.
In this context, the dueling deliveries of Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone can be read in a variety of ways, representing complacency versus ambition, smooth versus rough, ambience versus noise. It’s telling that “Keep Your Heart” peaks with Adebimpe’s voice blurring into a cinched howl, merging with the sound of the synths before Malone talks the song back down, relaying a relationship between dueling elements. Nine Types of Light may fall somewhat short in comparison with TV on the Radio’s other albums, but it’s a strong, smart effort from a band that continues to push resolutely forward.