TV On The Radio: Nine Types of Light

 A gorgeous display of sounds come together on an album that's experimental without being pretentious and melancholy without being melodramatic.   

Iann Robinsonby Iann Robinson


There aren’t too many bands that can deliver true variety. TV On The Radio, good or bad, has always changed up what they do. In one of those pretentious ideas that only a critic can come up with, TV On The Radio remind me of early David Bowie, when everything he did turned what he had just done on its ear. 

Since the band’s debut with 2002’s OK Calculator, TV has been artsy, acappella, funky, enraged, political and even danceable. With their newest studio offering, Nine Types Of Light, TV On The Radio has decided to make a soul record. A weird soul record, but a soul record nonetheless. 

Not to ride the Bowie idea too hard, but Nine Types Of Light has the same out-of-left-field effect that Bowie’s brilliant Young Americans had. It’s a soul album from a band you don’t expect a soul album to come from. What’s even better is that Nine Types Of Light is really great. TV On The Radio has always been hit or miss with me. Sometimes what they did moved me, at others they felt like the band Theo Huxtable’s college buddy Howard would have started after graduation.  On Nine Types Of Light they do more song writing and less “presenting”. There’s often been an affectation to the music they put out, no matter how good it was, and it bugged me. Here the band seems more comfortable in its own skin, the kind of freedom stepping completely out of your comfort zone can provide.

From the opening guitar strum of “Second Song,” the ride on this album feels different. This song is what would happen if Smokey Robinson joined the Pixies and decided to perform Devo covers. “Keep Your Heart” centers on a broken funk beat with some epic keyboards and harmonies happening. It’s a dreamy song that feels so much like David Bowie I had to bring the idea up a third time. The album shifts into a more straightforward funk/soul mode with “You” but TV On The Radio maintains their ethereal elegance through it. I also have to give credit to “Killer Crane” – not many songs can take soul reduction and add a banjo over it.

The dynamics here are different than what you’d expect from TV On The Radio and yet they make it work. The vocals from Tunde Adipme are still amazing, as are the back ups from Kyp Malone. The stand out dynamics is how the bass from Gerard Smith and drums from Jaleel Bunton play off of each other. At no point do they just drive the song or add the funk. Instead they are constantly riffing, engaging the music and moving around it.  Sometimes with low audibility, at other times with full-blown funk, the rhythm section never lets up.  Keeping the groove while also playing in a progressive, out there style isn’t easy. 

I’ve heard some bitching that this isn’t as good as Return To Cookie Mountain or Dear Science or that the band isn’t as focused on detail. I think that’s missing the point, not just of Nine Types Of Light, but also of TV On The Radio entirely. The key here is creativity, from free jazz, to Brian Eno to late eighties pop and so on. TV makes some of the most honest music out there, they just pour what they do on an album and see if the world can catch up. Here they’ve mellowed, allowed the sun (or light if you need a pun) to pour over what they do. Nine Types Of Light is a bright record, a slow jam epic that still manages to stay melancholy and experimental. It’s not that the band has forgotten what they’ve done before; they’re just not interested in it.

Sadly the album a bittersweet accomplishment for TV On The Radio as recently Gerard Smith was diagnosed with cancer. Though the band maintains he is in good hands, the resulting tour and promotion has to be tough on them. Nine Types Of Light is a gorgeous display of sounds that all come together into an album that is experimental without being pretentious and melancholy without being melodramatic. It’s an easy contender for one of my albums of the year.