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TV on the Radio – Return to Cookie Mountain

May 21, 2007

Of all the albums that topped the best of 2006 lists, TV on the Radio’s Return to Cookie Mountain was perhaps the most challenging and simultaneously rewarding. I was recommended the album simply on a “you would like this” basis, and alternatively the persons brother told me I would hate it. Thus, I decided it was something I needed to hear, but I put it off. I regained interest by the end of the year when I started seeing the album all over the place, in places as innocuous and simple as Rolling Stone, The Onion, and Pitchfork Media (god forgive me). Although I hate giving any more bearing to any musical criticism juggernauts, but it topped a lot of big name lists. TV on the Radio appeared on the front of Spin Magazine due to Cookie Mountain being deemed the album of the year, for one thing, and Entertainment Weekly gobbled it up too (I think it might have also been their album of the year, but I’m not 100% sure). They were on David Letterman and Jimmie Kimmel. The delay in my interest only augmented the confusion that the album gave me on first listen, but I will attest that this is one of the best albums of 2006 and worthy of all the praise it gets.

What I didn’t mention is that by the time I had acquired Return to Cookie Mountain, the album had gained almost mythical praise within my circle of music-loving acquaintances. They treated it as if it was some sort of nearly impassable wall that once traversed broke into paradise or something. Upon first listen, I was more than just skeptical, but turned off altogether. However, months later, when I had given the album numerous listens and understood it fully, I felt completely comfortable with what it was trying to say. The truth is that Return to Cookie Mountain is as much a puzzle as people say it is, and it is one of the most wildly different albums of pop to hit the mainstream in years. In a world where bands tend to get more and more disposable, TV on the Radio reaffirmed their place in the industry with this record and additionally justified all of their other music when they were more of an underground force. What I can say of this style will probably turn most people off at first, but don’t be fooled. I haven’t heard something this original in a long time, and this album sounds like little else you have heard. I can describe it as heavily beat oriented, a mix between hip-hop, alt rock and trip-hop, with distinctly haunting melodies. It’s nothing short of a miracle, or perhaps an almost unbelievably show of skill, that TV on the Radio has gotten as far as it has, because their style is so unique and at times trying.

For that reason, it might be best to work backwards to truly put together all of the pieces. Although I Was A Lover might be one of the albums finest moments, the fact that it comes as a first track is downright discombobulating. The albums “hit” is Wolf Like Me, an upbeat, rocking, dark masterpiece that puts a lot of what the album has to say out on the table without quite digging in. But that doesn’t make it any less amazing. This is the finest example of the groups dynamic lyrics. Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone team up for a wonderful, although not unique, rhythmic vocal style that breaths life into the record and acts as just as key of a role as any other instrument. A good chunk of the albums appeal is actually in the vocals and the lyrics, which are always well focused poetry. Especially breaking are the vocals in Blues From Down Here, “rue the pin/drop it in/let it wash away,” sang in a singsong repetition over a completely destructive backdrop of music. This great line is not unique. The lyrics are just as impressive as the voices that sing them, and the description of a clone in I Was A Lover as well as the momentous Tonight are both highlights.

The continuous blossoming of this album is what makes it so worthwhile, and half the fun is letting it burrow into your head progressively. Every song on the album is key to the overall picture, which I think very few albums can vouch for. Even the weakest track, A Method, is sly and quite infectious rhythm. And what the big picture is could be explained as an urban odyssey of the soul, and an exploration into the psyche of the human mind. This may sound pretentious, but really who am I to judge what this album is really about with lyrics so cryptic and deep? And it never repeats itself either. Every song is singular. The final shoegaze rush of Wash The Day Away is just as shocking as the slamming railroad gospel Let The Devil in midway down the line, and as fun as filled with tension as Playhouses. Sometimes the album surfaces with something a little more positive like I Was A Lover and Providence, but the music is best at it’s darkest, particularly Wolf Like Me, Blues From Down Here, and Hours.

I guess the biggest complaint I have about Return to Cookie Mountain is it is kind of hard to get through in one listen, but no doubt this is in my top five for last year. Once again, you can’t let it slip through your fingers just because of what comes out on the first listen. I did that and it remained under my radar for months. Just try to keep an open mind and let the melodies and great vocals surface. This isn’t easy, but in the end more than worth it.

Also, I did a top fifty albums list on my RYM. Check it out, maybe.

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