TV on the Radio’s music has always been thoughtful, challenging, and dense, but what appears on their fifth album, Seeds, is predicated less on exploration than reduction, sharpening, and in some senses attenuating, the effect of their sound. The album’s title hints at roots and origins, but the songs are further from the oblique oddness of the band’s early days than ever before, with material that for the first time seems to border on insubstantial.
Any potential lack of substance is, of course, relative; TOTR has cultivated such a fruitful catalogue since their 2004 debut, with steady growth and development between each release, that it’s by now standard to expect something fresh and singular from each successive outing. That isn’t the case on Seeds, which, while certainly different from the band’s previous output, feels like a simplified version of things they’ve done before, the fuzziness and distortion pushed further to the edges, the bits of dynamic weirdness used as background color rather than song-defining centerpieces. Hunkering down on a few repeating ideas, centered around punchy tempos and pared-down lyrics, the basic elements these tracks introduce at their outsets become the defining structure that propels them rather than the first step of shifting, vertiginous journeys into new sonic territory.
This makes for music that feels underwhelming at first, but the album is carefully conceived, eventually emerging as a respectable collection of power pop that, while not pushing to break new ground, noticeably flips the group’s usual approach, with a focus on satisfying hooks and visceral energy rather than serious depth. Opener “Quartz” starts off in an ominous haze of blurred, looped vocals, which seems to promise something heavy and forbidding, but that intensity recedes into a jingling rhythmic foundation. The vocals are the prevailing element here and elsewhere, which initially seems like a poor choice considering none of the band’s members are particularly great singers, their voices generally left protected in the background, rather than pushed to the front of the mix. Yet for all the focus on simplifying the aesthetic toward a new style of perky minimalism, the resulting material remains far from ordinary, still fundamentally ragged and inquisitive, with guitarist/producer Dave Sitek assuring that the group’s eccentricities are downplayed, but not totally lost.
“Quartz” continues with a series of questions (“How much do I love you?/How hard must we try?”) that may be rhetorical and may function as mere expressions of confusion; in either case, they establish Seeds as a work that’s still less interested in declaiming than investigating. There’s a definite theme of long-term dedication over immediate passion, and in many cases these commitment-focused love songs seem less about a romantic partner than the band themselves, taking stock of their situation while stripping down to the basic outlines of the type of music they’ve become known for, releasing an apparently lighthearted album that continues to probe deeper questions, albeit in an offhand, understated fashion.
Some songs directly engage emotional trauma in seemingly flippant fashion, like “Happy Idiot” and its lobotomized “ignorance is bliss” message, an ostensibly self-aware gesture for a group putting out their most pop-oriented venture yet. Despite gestures like this and the general simplicity of the lyrics, the songs are never stupid, though some are noticeably undercooked; least effective is the nearly seven-minute-long “Ride,” which fails mostly because of overreach, stretching its repetitive anthemic aspirations far beyond their breaking point. Despite such weak spots, the album succeeds by being both engaging on a intuitive level and deceptively thoughtful, putting aside overt ambition to pursue a condensed, often melancholy sound that retains TV on the Radio’s characteristic inquisitive nature.