Nine Types of Light: A study

There are few bands I like as much as TV On The Radio. I once wrote 1800 words on one of their songs when their saxophone player dared me to. Their music has been in either the front or the back of my head since 2004 saw the release of their debut record, Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes. It's been with me lately because their newest and most-certainly-on-my-best-of-the-year-list record Nine Types of Light has been plowing through my subconscious leaving debris in its wake that I've been collecting in an attempt to understand it. it came to me a little while ago what I think the album was about though listening to the songs as singular entities kinda erases my assessment in small parts as I come to love the shit out of every song for the unique pleasures they each offer, I stand by my feelings about what the album as a single work of art represents. Note: I've had theories about art in the past, shared them with the artists and been totally wrong. But if I don't talk about them like I was speaking an objective truth it's a lot harder to write.
Dear Science, their 2008 record and the one that endeared them not just to critics but to the NPR set and who made it possible for them to sell out the House of Blues when last they came to boston, was an album about crisis. The walls were coming down, bombs were going off, lovers decided to brave it in bed together making just as much commotion there as the rioters outside. Nine Types of Light is the aftermath. The love is there but it's now being tested through times that neither could have guessed could be so bad. It's easier and more practical to see their world as just the one that we're living in now, but I find both more interesting and a little disconcerting that the idea of this album taking place in a deserted wasteland ruined by man's collective folly and populated by roving be-mohawked gangs and mutants isn't at all out of place. I bet Bayard Rustin and Harvey Milk and Susan B. Anthony all really hoped that by the year 2011, a year that doesn't feel realistic when written down, that people of different sex, race and sexual orientation would be living in harmony at least in fucking america for fuck's sakes. They were mistaken and in that respect we are living in a dystopian society. Turn on the news and you have a reason to throw your tv out the window in mental agony and rage. It's more comforting for me to fictionalize the struggles presented in Nine Types of Light. I place it next to The A-Frames' Black Forest as the second post-apocalyptic album I've encountered.

TV On The Radio's albums have followed a logical progression at least as far as narrative imagery conjured in my head. And is there any other way, really? Ok Calculator was life alone with a four-track, afraid to go outside, imagining what happens in the places you can see from your window. Desperate Youth is the loneliness of stepping outside and seeing modern life, of reflecting on the ugliness of the past, that the few people who share your opinions are all underground, slam poets fingering the triggers of unloaded guns. Return To Cookie Mountain is things starting to shift and not for the better. It's walking through pockets of a city on the verge of a failed revolution, run by a sadist with a child's IQ. People are rioting in the street and buying guns and forgetting how to love each other, forgetting that they need to, that it's more important than eye-for-an-eye retribution and tornados of violence and bombings. Dear Science is when there are just enough people to keep shooting at each other. Prophets are rising in isolated spots trying to sing the gospel of love and peace, but just outside are litter-and-body-strewn streets that paint too ugly a picture to paint over. All you have are people if you're lucky enough to still have them by your side. Nine Types of Light isn't yet at the rebuilding stage. It's the bitterness of people not trying to make things better, of love being all you have to live for. Throughout their oeuvre that's been the one constant, the diamond in the rough, and it's one the heroes of their records finally learned to polish and treasure.

The record starts and ends in a way with "Caffeinated" Consciousness. I'd put money on everyone's eyes being drawn to that title first as I was and noticing that it's an odd choice for album closer (They even called the first song on the album "Second Song" as if "Caffeinated"were there first and then moved at the last second.), but there's a method to it. Tunde Adebimpe evidently also found it slightly out of place there as he put it first in the film he co-directed that puts the album to images. The film that Nine Types Of Light evokes purely in a narrative sense would be either Doomsday or Tobe Hooper's Dance of the Dead, two films not unreasonably forgotten. But what I mean by this is that the world ended when Dear Science ended and now the protagonists are trying to live in melted and empty cityscapes and deserts patrolled by the mutated ghosts of the conservatives who pushed the button and put the statue of liberty up to her tits in sand. "Caffeinated Consciousness" is a way to alert you to the danger and it belongs in the beginning because it's the most instantly memorable song on the album in my opinion because it's one of the first songs that is in a style that TVOTR created for themselves out of many different genres that isn't the style they pioneered and perfected on their second album Return to Cookie Mountain. There's very little characteristic fuzz here, which is why opening the film with "CC" was a wise choice, but there's a line that makes its closing the album make sense. "On/I'm Optimistic! On Overload!" Whether it's "on" or "I'm" ultimately doesn't matter. Some people disagree about it. As we'll see, they both work.

"Second Song" shows Tunde being both more plain and clear than he's ever been, talking his way into the situation. "Confidence and ignorance approve me. Define my day today. I've tried so hard to shut it down, lock it up, gently walk away. Appetites and impulses confuse me." He's essentially talking over something with the listener, confessing the things that might make him slow or weak (human) because in this new world seconds count and you need to be on your toes and know the person your with intimately. Think Cillian Murphy and Naomie Harris after leaving Jim's house in 28 Days Later but between two well-meaning and unfailingly nice liberals. "And then the night comes, I'm fiending like a pyro, And I know it stables my survival" it might get you killed but he can't give up his recklessness because "when there's music all around me" he remembers the world as it was. Giving up, being too cautious, forgetting to live, is not an option. Knowing the balance is key. The chorus is an inversion of the chords used in Dear Science's hit "Golden Age" both a signifier of how things have changed, and also an alert, a code or sign to survivors heading for safety. "every lover on a mission, shift your known position, livin' a lie! ...every lover on a mission, shift your known position to the light." There's freedom near by, you just need to know how to get there. You can love in safety and security, instead of in fear. Anyone who's seen enough post-apocalyptic films knows this is too often a mirage.

Lured in by the siren song they venture toward apparent safety. "Keep Your Heart" is both proof that these two will do anything to keep each other safe, but that they don't need whatever safety is being offered. They're too busy making promises to actually get to each other's cores. Though those promises are beautiful "I'm gonna keep your heart if the world all falls apart, I'm gonna keep your heart." This is them making love in a tiny oasis in the desert or an empty but once-well-furnished apartment left mostly intact. A stopover on their journey to a shelter. "You" is them once again on the road, the hot sun on their backs, arriving midway through and discovering the temporary paradise they've been looking for. I picture the kind of comforting debauchery and temporary comforts of most of these situations, an impressive beast until it flashes its even more impressive jaws and things take a turn. They have plumbing, beds, and a lot of like-minded, heavily tattooed survivors there too. This is where the production of the album becomes a crucial factor in interpreting the meaning. Here a thread-bare electric guitar conjures images of deserts and heat and a mock-slide guitar does the rest. There are instruments all over Nine Types of Light that make their first appearances on a TVOTR record and give the impression of having been assembled from what was left after the end came. This is what they had and they're making the most of it (the twelve-string and middle-eastern sounding guitar on "Killer Crane" are two other examples). They're making the most of the destruction. Hence "No Future Shock."

In the Nine Types of Light film, Kyp Malone imagined a dance contest to "No Future Shock," and I agree that there's no better visualization for it, I just put a different set of clothes on them. This is where Dance of the Dead and Doomsday are more helpful than either The Road or The Road Warrior. Those films don't get the bacchanal of those who've lived in nuclear fallout for years, adapting to it. They're more practical (and better movies, but I digress). "No Future Shock" is the revelry of the deranged survivors. The world has ended, they've been forsaken and forgotten, so "Dance! don't stop! Do The No Future Shock!" It's a seductive song (and an impossibly funky song I can't ever get out of my head) and the lovers join in the dance at first. Listening to Kyp Malone bark orders at partiers is too fucking cool to not want to dance to. "Killer Crane" is their life in this new world, professing love and promising that things will get better. The odd sounding guitar is the presence of their new home always beneath all they say and do, the new regulations and laws and the smell of other people who don't remember that things could get better. These two don't belong here because they have too much hope, they just don't see it yet. "Will Do" is doubt peering in through seeming perfection. It's hunger, it's other people taking liberties with you because there's no rule or law or defining moral except what the biggest man says. It's a place run like the talking points on Glenn Beck's chalkboard. Total amorality has its charms and it's tempting to give in to a lot of things. But they don't give up on each other. "New Cannonball Blues" has that perfect menacing quality. So much can have gone wrong. They might have transgressed, they might be on the run, they might be watching proof that these people aren't like-minded seekers of companionship but vampires after helpless mortals. Either way it's bad news, either way it's the blues. "It was written in blood before they wrote it in stone so sing it with me like its your own." There are tests that prove their commitment to the community and they can't do it.

"Repetition" is perfect. It's where the album is at its most dangerous, its most vicious and angry and Road Warrior-esque. "Repetition" of feet on the ground as they go on the run, repetition of the same mistakes that led someone to push the button, repetition of the hate that characterized the world that was obliterated, repetition of the pettiness that defined the creation of the great empires, monarchies, dictators and Fascists of the old world, our world. "I've abused my position, and it cost my friends and if the world keeps spinning I could do it again." The most untrustworthy are always in charge and they always manage to pit people against each other over imaginary lines in the sand. "What's the matter with your next-door neighbor?" When the song reaches it's second act, lights are flashing, vehicles are in motion, guns are going off again, destruction they thought they were done with. They escape, barely, with their lives. They have nothing else, but they had nothing inside either. From a hill, they see the city they've left behind: "Beverly Hills, burning off plastic, scrape it away." Luxury is a lie, comfort only at the price of forced order and cannibalism. "Beverly Hills, Nuclear, what should we wear? And who's for dinner?" The song has a melancholy swagger. They walk once again through the desert, the worst behind them for now, but they have no food, no water, no clothes but what they were, nothing but...each other. "Hold tight. Our love affair is writing our name in the's paradise." They only wanted safety to sleep next to each other without having to keep one eye open, but frankly having each other is enough. Even if they die from the heat, from starvation, having each other is enough. The story ends and everyone gets to imagine their own ending but Tunde sings on behalf of the author after the fact: "Gone optimistic. We're gonna survive" And so we come full circle. Sure you'd have to be on optimistic to see them living out there on their own, but these guys are optimistic. They have to be. They've been through more than I can even imagine. I have nothing but the profoundest respect, admiration and love for the members of TV On The Radio. A few listens to their album produced this narrative. They're geniuses who bring my brain to places it hasn't gone before and who put you in places of insecurity so that you can find yourself, answer questions you didn't realize were important. "CC" might not be the love song the story needed, but its the one we need. It's a two-chord wake-up call and like the album it closes, it's fucking mind-blowing and more important than any one song on it or any idea I might have about it. It's precious, so keep it close.

R.I.P. Gerard Smith and Tim Hetherington

Gerard Smith died of lung cancer today. He was one of the nicest people I've ever met. I didn't know him well, I only met him once, but he was insanely talented and came by success through ability and hard work. He was a busker, a first responder on 9/11 and finally the bass player for TV On The Radio, making his final public appearance in the Nine Types Of Light movie. Jesus christ I couldn't be any more sorry that he's gone. He joined up with the band just after Desperate Youth & Bloodthirsty Babes hit stores and it was his bass playing that contributed to my interest in the group. I remember being initially turned off by the Staring At The Sun video for some reason and then seeing them perform it on Last Call one night changed my mind. Suddenly they weren't just talented musicians experimenting, they were a real band and through it all Smith was a huge part of their appeal to me. Perpetually turned toward his bass amp as they would rocket through "Staring At The Sun" or "Wolf Like Me" on their many TV appearances, Smith rounded out the group's sound and could do anything they needed him to, keys, guitar, whatever. He was a musical polymath and I'll never forget being able to shake his hand backstage at the Wilbur in late 2008 after their life-changing show had ended. Sarah and I watched from the balcony totally in awe of their stage presence, lucky to be so close, happy to be watching what turned out to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The only thing I can think to communicate how much I loved his musicianship was that I spent hours in my basement playing along to his bass parts while the songs blasted in my ears through headphones. I used to pretend to be Gerard Smith when everyone in my house was asleep. That was one of the ways I dealt with emotional problems. The five members of TVOTR are all insanely modest about their ability, Smith perhaps most of all. My deepest sympathy goes out to everyone lucky enough to have spent time with him or shared a stage with him.

I can't really express how angry it makes me that Tim Hetherington is dead. He was a journalist killed because people are so fucking hateful and stupid and greedy and fucking there is no excuse. There is no reason why people like Hetherington should have any reason to fear ending up like he did. He was there objectively, he had no stake, he wasn't carrying a gun.
This is the last film Hetherington made and though short it is a fitting conclusion to his work as a journalist and filmmaker.

Diary (2010) from Tim Hetherington on Vimeo.

Commitment to Sound

I like music criticism about a fifth as much as I like music, which is still a lot. I love reading about albums, I love misguided and wrongheaded music lists because I have fun disagreeing with people probably more than I do having my opinions validated by folks in high places. My friend Tucker Johnson's running Rolling Stone's astonishingly stupid 500 best albums list right now and I like reading his take as much because I disagree with the list as I do because I want to hear him eviscerate/agree with their choices. And to be frank the list is a joke; there are more best ofs than proper albums and no distinction between live and studio and probably one black artist for every ten whites (to say nothing of the dearth of music from the continents of Africa, Asia and South America). It shows no creativity and an embarrassing lack of periphery from a bunch of people who claim to be the authority on rock and roll. Though, in their defense I know their MO and still repeatedly go looking for things they publish knowing they'll make me furious. They're euro/ameri-centric and pretty patriarchal as well, so expecting that they'd place The Scientists or Sister Carol or Mulatu Astatke in the same esteem as Eric Fucking Clapton isn't worth the effort. You have to get a grip on the style of the source before you can take issue with their bias. There's just going to be no real music reporting from Rolling Stone - their focus is on .08% of the music put out today.
One of my favourite sources for music criticism (in fact it's become nearly exclusive) is The A.V. Club. I figured I already got all my film reviews there (I do enjoy the frankness of Dave White at as well) I might as well see how their attitude toward music gels with mine. I've figured out that what they applaud more than a catchy song is commitment to a style or aesthetic. Just as head film writer Scott Tobias applauds ideological or stylistic decisions more than he does technical acumen, discerning direction or great acting, their music critics like it when someone picks a mode and sticks it out to the bitter end. This is sometimes a good thing as you know who's made a solid 'album' in the old fashioned sense like The Yardbirds or Miles Davis or even The Cure, a record that sounds like itself all the way through, the production doesn't change, it doesn't sound like a collection of songs by the same person given individual treatment to bring out the best in each song. They like it when someone sits down and makes a record in the same space that doesn't change rapidly from end to end. Know that and how your own tastes match up, and you and The A.V. Club can get along nicely. Case in point, my new favourite record Badlands by Dirty Beaches. A record that has the fuzzy expansiveness of early Suicide and the claustrophobic production of Sparklehorse, Badlands starts out awesome and stays that way, rarely straying from its chosen course. In defense of The A.V. Club's grade A review, the production and the attitude of its cooler-than-cool author make sure that the quality doesn't dip. I agree entirely with the review. It's a great album, but I could also see someone digging in and being weirded out based on the review and its high marks. They expect readers to be willing to sympathize with their appreciation of aural commitment, which I can sympathize with, as I myself have expected more from albums given the same grade based on their creators sticking with a chosen idiom. For instance Lisbon by The Walkmen wasn't quite the masterpiece they touted it as, but its sound is solid throughout. Love Remains by How To Dress Well is impressively produced and spooky to boot, but really isn't the sort of thing I want to listen to twice. Similarly the dour-to-boring High Violet by The National was compared to the Arcade Fire but has nothing of their dynamism. But they are just as committed to boring me to tears as Arcade Fire are to rocking the paint off the walls. The A.V. Club aren't as willing to go to bat for something like 100 Lovers by Devotchka which admittedly doesn't have the brains of say, Dirty Projectors, but a few of the songs simply outshine the most committed deep cuts from the under-appreciated producers they champion. That we agreed about Badlands is probably to do with coincidence as anything else. What usually happens is I'll listen to the records that they've given A grades to and appreciate/respect the record and agree that they deserve praising. And then I promptly forget to ever listen to them again. Staying power is something the AV staffers and I strongly differ on. Oh and I should say now that differences of opinion notwithstanding they are amazing writers and I visit the site ten times a day and constantly inspire me and I'm hugely in your debt.

But the reason I love Badlands has more to do with its influences, Link Wray and Suicide. It's the things that Dirty Beaches are committed to rather than that its sole member Alex Zhang Hungtai is as infatuated with them that draws me to listen again and again. Sounding like Bloodshot Bill as imagined by David Lynch, the record is an enthralling if haunting listen, but unlike How To Dress Well, its progressions and Hungtai's cracked howl are enough to warrant repeat listens even if you aren't in the mood for a nightmare. To paraphrase Tobias' on films like Oldboy and Army of Darkness, it's cool and that's more important than having discernible lyrics or depth. I would also argue that the same is true of The Kills who've made a career on being the badasses in leather you desperately want to like you. Alison Mosshart's dropped a touch in my estimation from unknowable leather jacket-clad cypher to girl who maybe also likes being liked, as evidenced by her less-than-stellar collaboration with Jack White on The Dead Weather, a band that sounded like a high school Kills cover band trying out new material for the first time. Mosshart belongs in The Kills because Jamie Hince understands her strengths and builds her a stage better than White did over two hastily recorded Dead Weather albums. Mosshart sounded out of her depth in The Dead Weather because they weren't cool, they were trying to be cool. All they ever managed was a kind of ugliness that has its charms if you'd thought The White Stripes were too polished and pretty. Die-hards wanted White back in the Stripes, but that dream's been forever shattered. At least there's a new Kills album to fall back on.
I'm interested to see what The A.V. Club makes of their latest, Blood Pressures, when it's released on Tuesday. I predict that it won't get the A- of more committed aesthetes even though at the end of the year I doubt I'll have heard songs I like too much more than "Pots and Pans" or "Future Starts Slow" sure there are ups and downs, but I think that this record is more winning than even Badlands because it's human and because there are some songs that you can listen to any day of the week in any mood. Badlands is what it is, but it's only what it is. "Pots and Pans" is a song that is bigger than the album it closes, not unlike "Dancin' on our Graves" by Cave Singers, a song so good it shed its initial context (the credits of Cabin Fever 2) and is now one of my favourite songs. I applaud someone like Dirty Beaches and I love his album, but I think that imperfection has its charm. Humans make mistakes and I like it when one song can be the best thing about a record, rather than the whole thing being pretty even from start to finish. I like it when an album is good but gives me one or two songs I know I'll revisit years from now. Maybe it could have used a more uniform style or more commitment to any one of its stylistic devices, but I think it's pretty cool the way it is.

For listening purposes

Table 1

Table 1.2

1 Ginny, Theodorus splendiferatus
1.2 Scout, Daviticus tafinicus
Observed in their natural habitats