For someone who has achieved so much – producing Scarlett Johansson, collaborating with David Bowie and standing proud at the top of NME’s Future 50 – it’s strange how there remains something of the underachiever to David Sitek. Blame TV On The Radio. It was TVOTR’s glorious 2003 EP ‘Young Liars’, made in vocalist Tunde Adebimpe’s Brooklyn loft, that brought Sitek to national attention. But their first two albums were sometimes easier to admire than love; glittering and flighty, but perhaps too aloof to carry you up with them. And even as the outfit expanded, its multi-talented instrumentalist/producer has seemed wary of calling it a band – sorry, it’s just a “project”, apparently – all of which leaves you with the impression TVOTR is a glorious showcase for an auteur to showcase his skills, but not – not quite – the sound of a brilliant rock group.
With ‘Dear Science’ you get the impression that Sitek intends to change all that. Certainly, it’s TVOTR’s most accessible album so far, but this isn’t simply the case of band caving in and giving the people what they want. Rather, ‘Dear Science’ cuts through genres like a laser through a music encyclopaedia, making strange connections, but always with pop clarity as the ultimate aim. As ever, Sitek’s production shines. Every track is loaded with sonic tricks; there’s handclaps, sparring horns, unexpected new layers that loom out of the canvas like a Magic Eye canvas. The opening ‘Halfway Home’ is roughly what you might get if you blended The Trashman’s surf-rock classic ‘Surfin’ Bird’ with the gravity-defying synths of Gary Numan. ‘Golden Age’ comes on like Michael Jackson’s ‘Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough’ until the chorus, which explodes into brass-lifted gospel.
Sometimes Adebimpe’s lyrics have seemed cold and elliptical, but here they flip back in on themselves, with puns and free association… and did he really just sing something about a “foam-injected Axl Rose”? There is the very occasional slip towards pastiche: ‘Crying’ couldn’t be more Prince if it changed its name to a toddler’s squiggle. But when ‘Dead Science’ works smoothly, it’s stunning. See the sparse, elegiac ‘Stork And Owl’, which sees Adebimpe’s bruised falsetto fall gently to Earth through slow gusts of plucked strings and strummed harp. So Dave, are we allowed to call this a great rock “band” yet?